Posts from NYC

The NYU Tandon School Of Engineering

I’ve written about NYU and Poly here on AVC a few times, most recently when I gave a commencement speech earlier this year. Poly is one of the great successes in NYC over the past ten years. In 2005, it was a struggling engineering school in downtown Brooklyn and NYU hadn’t had an engineering school since the mid 1970s.

In 2008 NYU and Poly agreed to affiliate and put themselves on a path to eventually merge the schools. In 2012/2013 NYU and Poly officially merged and Poly became the NYU Poly School Of Engineering.

Over those ten years, Poly has risen from a middling engineering school to one of the top 50 engineering schools in the US. Applications have risen, as have test scores, and graduation rates. The faculty has stepped up and has been joined by a bunch of new dynamic educators and researchers. It has been a joy to watch this transformation which happened because a “jewel of a school” joined a juggernaut called NYU which brought it brand, capital, and leadership. I’ve had a front row seat to this transformation because I’ve been a Trustee of Poly and NYU and joined both boards because of the affiliation and planned merger.

But it gets better. Today, NYU and Poly are announcing that the school will now be called The NYU Tandon School Of Engineering because Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon have bestowed a $100mm gift on the school, to be matched by a $50mm capital campaign. These funds will be directed at faculty and academic programs which are the essence of a university.

For me, this feels like a company I seed funded just did a growth round. And that always feels good because it means that the plan worked.

Besides the phenomenal generosity of Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon, I think I would be remiss not to mention some of the other folks who made this happen; Jerry Hultin, who led Poly during the merger, Sreeni who leads the school now, Dave McLaughlin the Provost of NYU who championed the idea of the merger, and John Sexton and Marty Lipton, whose leadership of NYU over the past twenty years has transformed not just NYU, but also Poly and many other things. Of course there were many others who made this happen, but these people deserve mention for the courage of their leadership. Turnarounds don’t happen without courageous leadership.

The biggest winner in all of this is New York City. I got involved with Poly and NYU because I was acutely aware that the shortage of strong engineering schools in NYC was having a negative impact on the local tech sector. Poly’s engineering school has always been quite large, with almost 2,500 graduate students. But it was not thriving and it needed to. Now NYU Tandon, Columbia, and Cornell Technion are a “golden triangle” of high quality engineering schools in NYC. So much has changed on this front in the past ten years. Now we have the fertile ground for technology to match the entrepreneurial spirit and capital that NYC has always had. This is a big deal.

Taxis, Ubers, and Subways

Nate Silver published an interesting post on Taxis, Ubers, and Subways this past week.

This graphic is from that post:


What you can see from this graphic is that most New Yorkers don’t use taxis or Uber. They use the subway, and to a lesser extent buses.

This is from Nate’s post:

How big is the for-hire car market in New York? Our data set includes 93 million taxi and Uber rides over a six-month period in 2014. Double that and round up,7 and you get to about 200 million rides per year. By contrast, the New York subway provided 1.75 billion rides in 2014, about nine times as many. There were also almost 800 million MTA bus rides8 in 2014.

If you add subways and buses together, mass transit is 12x larger than for-hire cars.

It is true that Uber and the other on demand car services have changed the game in the for-hire car market. Taxis will either respond (and be allowed to respond) to the competition from the new entrants or they will be replaced. But in a big city like NYC, the real transportation action is in mass transit. That has been the case for the past hundred years and will likely be the case for the next hundred years as well.

Multi Modal Transportation

This morning I citibiked down the west side of Manhattan along the Hudson to Pier 11, where I caught the East River Ferry to Dumbo. I took this picture on the ferry ride across the east river.


In Dumbo, I got on another Citibike which I rode to Clinton Hill, docked it, got an iced latte, and hopped on the subway for a few stops into Bed Stuy. If Citibike was available in Bed Stuy, as it soon will be, I would have biked all the way to my breakfast meeting. But the subway works fine too.

I have a friend who Citibikes every morning from Bed Stuy into downtown Brooklyn where be catches a subway to work.

Transportation options matter a lot in a dense urban environment like NYC. Transportation is one of about five or six things (safe streets, good schools, affordable housing, great parks, convenient transportation, etc) that makes for a great city and a good quality of life.

In NYC we’ve had a few new modes of transportation arrive in the past few years. Citibike has been amazing for me. Same with the east river ferry. Uber and Lyft have also made getting around NYC easier for those who can afford it. The green cabs in the outer boroughs have also made things a bit better.

But its multi modal transportation that really gets me excited. When all of these various modes are well connected and available via one subscription on your phone then we will really have something. We are close as my commute this morning proves.

Video Of The Week: Economic Development In NYC

There were a number of interesting and relevant discussions at the Cities For Tomorrow conference last week. This one, between Michael Barbaro of the New York Times, Dan Doctoroff of Sidewalk Labs, and Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor of NYC, about economic development in NYC was particularly relevant to entrepreneurs looking to build companies in NYC.

Loyalists vs Mercenaries

One of the things that entrepreneurs, founders, and CEOs obsess over is holding onto their team. When I propose some sort of difficult decision to a CEO, I am often met with the response “the team will freak out and we will lose them.” And I understand where this emotion comes from. You spend so much of your time recruiting, training, and managing a team and getting them into a place where they can execute for you and you can’t imagine having some of all of them walk out the door. Neither can I to be honest.

But teams come in all flavors. There are highly loyal teams that can withstand almost anything and remain steadfastly behind their leader. And there are teams that are entirely mercenary and will walk out without thinking twice about it. I once saw an entire team walk out on a founder. That company survived it, remarkably.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the factors that go into determining whether your team skews loyalist vs mercenary and what you might be able to do about it. Here are some of the most important factors:

1) Leadership. At the end of the day, people are loyal to a leader they believe in. Leading is not managing. Although it is impossible to lead if there is no management. But leading is that special thing. It is charisma, it is strength, it is communication, it is vision, it is listening, it is being there, it is calm, it is connecting, it is trust, faith, and belief. The best founders are great leaders. They may be shitty managers which means they need to find managers to help them. But they are great leaders. One of the things we look for in founders is leadership. If we want to follow them, we believe that others will too.

2) Mission. People are loyal to a mission. I’ve seen super talented people walk away from compensation packages 2-3x what they currently make because they believe in what they are working on and think it will make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. This is why investing in mission driven companies can produce great financial returns. Mission driven companies have something most companies don’t have. They have “why” that keeps the team together through difficult times and when the compensation isn’t close to “market”.

3) Values and Culture. My friend Matt wrote a post about Values and Culture the other day. I read it and responded “values are the house and culture is the furniture”. He thought that was about right. People want to work in a place that feels right to them. They need to feel comfortable at work. In the way that a welcoming home with comfortable furniture is pleasant to be in, a company with good values and culture is pleasant to work in.

4) Location. I spent the past week in europe. In Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, Vienna, and Ljubljana. These are very different talent markets that the bay area or NYC. In the Bay Area and NYC, your employees are constantly getting hammered to leave for more cash, more equity, more upside, more responsibility, and eventually it leads to them becoming mercenaries. It is incredibly hard to hold onto a team in the Bay Area and NYC. If you are building your company in Ljubljana, Waterloo, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Indianapolis, you have a way better chance of building a company full of loyalists than if you are building it in the Bay Area or NYC.

If you mess up any of these dynamics, you can easily turn your team from loyalists to mercenaries. Changing leadership is the most common one. Almost every time I have seen a founder leave and be replaced by a new CEO, I have witnessed a significant exodus of talent from the company. It is better if the new CEO comes from within, but even then I have witnessed a significant exodus of talent. When the CEO comes in from the outside, it is almost always much worse.

If you move your team from Philadelphia to NYC or from Des Moines to the Bay Area, expect more turnover. Expect to turn loyalists into mercenaries. These talent starved locations create mercenaries. It’s the nature of the beast.

So what can you do to build a company full of loyalists instead of a company full of mercenaries? First you must lead. If you think you are a good leader, get better. If you think you are a great leader, you can get better. Get coaching and focus on becoming the best leader you can be.

Second, build a mission driven company. Make sure you are doing something that matters. If all you are doing is trying to make money for yourself, then all your employees will try to do is make money for themselves.

Third, invest in values and culture. Matt’s post is a good starting place for some tips on how to do that.  Build a welcoming home and put comfortable furniture in it. I mean that metaphorically of course. But the office does matter too.

Finally, think about being somewhere other than the Bay Area or NYC. Yes, they are great places to start companies, find talent, and get investment. But they are also places where others start companies, get investment, and find your talent. It’s a ratrace, a treadmill, and it’s grueling. If you can avoid it, you owe it to yourself to try.

There are many reasons why the startup sector feels stretched to me. But possibly the most significant one of all is the increasing amount of mercenary behavior I am witnessing in it these days. Hopefully this post will help you avoid that as much as possible. It’s hard these days.

Video Of The Week: My NYU Poly Commencement Address

Several weeks ago I gave a talk at the commencement of NYU Poly, NYU’s School of Engineering. I’ve been on the board of NYU and NYU Poly and this is the first time I’ve given a talk at commencement. It was fun.

The talk is short, about five or six minutes, and the video cuts me off at times, but you can see most of it and hear all of it.

Why be civically engaged if you’re in tech?

Tomorrow, Ron Conway and I are going to kick off Disrupt NY 2015, with a fireside chat with Kim-Mai Cutler. We plan to discuss philanthropy and civic involvement. I’m looking forward to this talk. I think folks in the tech sector need to embrace philanthropy and civic involvement and I look forward to making the case for that.

I’ve been working in the VC business since the mid 80s. And for most of that time, I’ve felt that the tech sector was surprisingly uninterested and uninvolved in things outside of the tech sector. That’s a great strength of the tech sector, it’s is focused on innovation, making things, and building companies. And it does not get distracted by things outside of that realm.

But we know that the things we make and the companies we build have great impact on those outside of the tech sector. It can be for the good, like building cars that don’t use carbon fuels and showing the auto industry that it can be a good business to do that. It can be for the bad, like automating away jobs that once paid the way for a middle class lifestyle.

It feels to me that our economy and our society is now deeply entwined with technology and being significantly impacted by it. If that is true, I believe it is shortsighted to avoid getting engaged in the discussions and debates about what kind of world we need to work toward. I think one way or another the tech sector is going to get pulled into these debates. It will be one thing if that happens thoughtfully and positively and another if the tech sector is pulled into them kicking and screaming.

Regular readers of this blog know that my partners and I have been involved in these discussions since we started USV over a decade ago. We spend our time, energy, and capital in areas like policy debates, philanthropy, and civic engagement. There are others in the tech sector who do the same. Ron Conway comes to mind as someone who has spent a similar amount of time, energy, and capital on this stuff. And I am thrilled to share the stage with him tomorrow as we discuss these issues.

We go on stage at 9:05am eastern tomorrow. I’m hoping the talk will be livestreamed and you can watch it live. If it is, it will be somewhere like here.

Video Of The Week: Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House

Last night the Gotham Gal, our daughter Jessica, and I went to see Hamilton at The Public. This is a hip hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. The writer and star of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda, read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, got obsessed with Hamilton, and started writing a hip hop record about him. That eventually led to the show.

But along the way, back in 2009, the White House invited Lin-Manuel to Poetry Night and he performed the opening number for the President, the First Lady, and their guests. This is the video of that night. It’s great and serves as the perfect trailer for the play, which you should try to see when it opens on Broadway this summer.

Fun Friday: Coming Up With A Better Name For NYC’s Tech Community

It’s no secret that I HATE the term Silicon Alley. It’s a wannabe term if there ever was one. NYC’s tech community doesn’t want to be Silicon Valley. If they wanted that, they’d move there. NYC’s tech community is gritty, artsy, and full of edges like NYC itself. I am in no way dissing or dismissing Silicon Valley. It’s mecca when it comes to tech. Everyone knows that. I’m just saying that calling ourselves Silicon Alley is lame. We can do so much better.

So I’m turning this over to the AVC community. What’s a better term for the hundreds of thousands of people who work in thousands of tech companies, large and small, in NYC?