Posts from July 2012

Some History

Folks often ask me "how have you been able to make comments work so well on your blog?"

It is not any one thing, it is a bunch of them.

But one of them was the decision to have a "bouncer."

Back in the early days, when we were using the native Typepad comment system and maybe we'd get 10 comments on a good day, my brother, who uses the handle Jackson online, and his friend, who uses the handle Tony Alva, were very frequent commenters here at AVC.

And whenever someone would come into the comments and say nasty stuff about me or what I wrote, Jackson would go right at them. So I started calling Jackson my "Bouncer."

It was effective and the trolls eventually lost interest in the AVC community.

Jackson got social media burnout four or five years ago and lost interest in AVC and pretty much everything else online. He went back to his vinyl records, photo albums, and hard cover books while the rest of us moved onto soundcloud, instagram, and wattpad.

And so I needed a new Bouncer. The obvious choice was Kid Mercury although I might have been tempted to go with Fake Grimlock if he had been around.

The Kid stepped into the role with skill and aplomb. And he is still in the role. Although to be honest, we rarely need a Bouncer anymore around here. The community is the bouncer now in many ways.

I was reminded of this when Jackson showed up yesterday without any warning. I am not sure if he will stick around. If he does, be prepared for an old school bias and a fair bit of cynicism. I hope he sticks around. We could use a bit more of that around here.

Drive vs Dropbox

Bijan posted yesterday about Drive vs Dropbox. He prefers Dropbox. I commented on his blog saying that I prefer Drive.

I figured it would be interesting to poll the AVC readership to see where everyone stands on the two most popular cloud storage services.

I had to hack Quipol to do this, so upvote if you prefer Drive and downvote if you prefer Dropbox.


MBA Mondays: Leveraging Your Partners To Grow And Develop Your Team

This is the final post I am writing in this MBA Mondays post on People. Next week we will start with the guest posts and I've lined up about a half a dozen of them. I am going to finish off my posts with something I know a fair bit about which is leveraging your partners to grow and develop your team.

In talking about "your partners", I will focus on your investors, because that is what I am. A VC. Most of this advice can be used to a degree with other partners, advisors, independent board members, consultants, etc.

There are a lot of investors who can write checks. But there are not a lot of investors who can help you build and manage a team. If you have a choice in your investors, which not everyone will have, you should select investors who can do the latter.

The best investors, the ones who have been at it for a while and have great reputations, will have a large network of people they have worked with over the years. Their network will also include people who they want to work with and who want to work with them. They can and do play matchmaker between their network and their portfolio companies. I suspect the partners at USV spend at least 25% of our time on things that would be considered "recruiter" functions. And we should probably spend more of our time on this. I don't know of a better way to positively impact the performance of our investments.

But not every portfolio company gets equal benefit out of our recruiting function. Like all things in life, the squeeky wheel gets the oil. We love all of our investments equally but some demand our time and attention and others do not. The ones who demand get. The others get too, but not as much. So rule #1 is demand that your investors help you grow and develop your team. Ask for results, expect results, get results.

Rule #2 is to be very specific about what you want and request help in frequent small asks. One of our portfolio companies that I am actively involved with sends me an email each week with up to three specific asks. No more than three. I can do three each week. What I can't do is a vague open ended request once in a while with a very large ask.

Rule #3 is to communicate actively with your investors. Make sure they know what you want and what you don't want. I know a lot of investors who spam their portfolio companies with resumes. That is not helpful. Make sure your investors know the jobs you are actively recruiting for. And let them know about the roles you are "opportunistically" recruiting for. And most importantly, make sure they know what you are not looking for and why. When you get resume spam, instead of ignoring it and deleting it, reply back with a courteous but clear message about why that was not helpful.

Rule #4 is to selectively engage your investors in the recruiting process. Use them when they can help. Use them to close an important candidate. Use them to get a second or third opinion on a particularly important hire. Don't give your investors control over your hiring decisions but engage them as trusted advisors. As the Gotham Gal likes to say "you get what you give." Give someone a role and a feeling of being involved and you will get help.

Rule #5 is to expose your investors to your team. Give them a sense of the culture of the company and the composition of the team. Give your best and brightest "air time" with your investors. Your employees will like it and so will your investors. I really enjoy being invited to speak to an all hands meeting, or to have lunch with the team, or to go play paintball with a couple portfolio companies. It allows me to help with retention, it allows me to think more clearly about who might fit with the team, it allows me to help the company in more ways, and most of all, it makes me feel good about the work that I am doing.

There is a limit to all of this. You should not let your investors become too engaged in the company. You and your team must run the company and there needs to be a very clear line between what is advice, assistance, and help and what is a shadow management function. If your investor is running your management team meeting, you know you've crosssed the line. That is a bad place to be.

But many entrepreneurs overcompensate for this by stiff arming their investors and that is a mistake too. You can't do everything yourself. Your investors can help. They operate at 30,000 feet and as a result they see a lot more of the markets that matter to you than you do. That includes the market for talent. So leverage them in the war for talent. Use them wisely. And you will see that it will pay dividends.

Helping others to achieve greatness as I attempt a bit of my own

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I was touched by this heartfelt post by Dave McClure yesterday. This part really rings true to me:

and so here I am: still standing in the arena, in hand-to-hand combat with demons mostly of my own making, aiming to make a small dent in the universe. nowhere near a great success story, yet fighting the good fight and perhaps helping others to achieve greatness as I attempt a bit of my own. I’ll be 46 in a month, well past the age when most folks have already shown what they’re made of. but I’m still grasping for that brass ring.

That one paragraph packs a lot of emotion and pattern recognition for me in it.

Going hand to hand with demons of your own making. Check.

Nowhere near a success story. Check.

Well past the age when most folks have already shown what they are made of. Check.

Still grasping for that brass ring. Check.

I could have written this exact post five years ago. When I was Dave's age.

Venture capital doesn't create 20 something millionaires. The prime of your career in VC is the late 40s. Right where Dave is.

I am not exactly sure when I stopped feeling all these things that Dave is feeling. But I did. It happened sometime in the past few years. And I am happier for it. But also worried that I don't have that big chip on my shoulder anymore. We will see.

But the best line of all is the one that I ganked for the headline of this post. Helping others to achieve greatness is what VC is all about. If you do it well, you achieve a bit of it yourself along the way. But you have to do the first to get the second. Dave understands that. And so I think he'll get his brass ring soon enough.

Cause & Effect

I've been reading sci-fi and thinking about sci-fi's relationship to technology innovation. I posted last week about Twitter and the Metaverse and noted that Neal Stephenson had imagined things in the early 90s that happened almost twenty years later.

But of course it is possible that many of the things that are built by technologists are reactions to reading sci-fi and wanting to realize the fertile imaginations of sci-fi authors.

So it's not entirely clear exactly who is inspiring who. Like most things, it is likely a bit of both. Technologists create new things. Writers are inspired and create stories that reflect these emerging new technologies. Technologists read those stories and are inspired by them.

It's a virtuous circle. Technology innovation doesn't occur in a vacuum. It happens in a dialog with society. And sci-fi writers are but one example of the way society impacts technology.

I think that's one of the reasons that many of the most interesting bay area startups are choosing to locate themselves in the city. And it is one of the reasons that NYC is developing a vibrant technology community. Society is at its most dense in rich urban environments where society and technology can inspire each other on a daily basis. Steven Johnson wrote about this phenomenon in his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From.

So if you want to know what is going to happen next in the world of technology, you need to be thinking about society and where it is going, how it is interacting with technology, and how it is inspiring technologists. Which is why I am reading a lot of sci-fi this summer.

Feature Friday: Friendly Failing

Mobile is a less reliable environment than the fixed web. Things don't always work exactly right. And so failing in a friendly way is really important. I particularly like the way Instagram handles this.

I went on a bike ride this morning out to Lazy Point. I saw a sign that I thought was great. I took a photo of it and shared it to Instagram and Foursquare.

Except, of course, there isn't good cell service out at Lazy Point. Which is a feature not a bug.

So after sharing the photo into Instagram, geolocating it on Foursquare, sharing it out, the upload failed. In many cases, all the work I had put into getting to that point would have been wasted. The app would have just said something like "upload failed" and I'd be back to the starting point.

But in Instagram, you get something that looks like this:

Instagram fail

The first time I got this fail message on Instagram and saw that reload icon, I thought "brilliant." That is friendly failing right there.

So I finished my bike ride this morning and when I got home, I took a photo of my phone, then using my home wifi, hit the reload icon, and the photo got posted, shared, and all was good.

There's a lot to learn from the way Instagram handles this experience. They save the action you wanted to do in its entirety, and they keep the app in that state until you choose to try it again, or choose to exit out on your own. All mobile apps should work this way. Many don't.

My New Nexus 7″

I still think of a 7" as a vinyl record for EPs and singles.

But 7" is going to start to mean someting else as I believe it is an ideal form factor for tablets.

I moved from a Kindle to an iPad for reading a couple years ago. I wrote about that at the time and explained that I preferred the backlighting and the ability to uses maps and wikipedia and such to jump out of the book and drill down on something in the book that sparks my curiosity.

Then the Kindle Fire came along and I immediately grabbed one of them. I've been reading on a Kindle Fire since it came out. I love it for reading books. But it is not a true Android tablet. It is really a Kindle with some extra stuff like a browser and some apps.

Some friends at Google sent me a Nexus 7" last week. I set it up yesterday and I've been using it for about 24 hours. So these are preliminary thoughts on it.

There is something very comforting about logging into a device with my Android/Google credentials and getting all my apps downloaded to it automatically. There is also something very comforting about getting a clean build of the most recent version of Android on a device. The Nexus 7" provides both of those comforts right out of the box.

I put a bunch of my favorite apps on the home screen:

Nexus home screen

If you look at the bottom of the home screen you'll see a yellow icon next to the Chrome browser. That is Bria, a SIP client that I have been using on my android phone. With Bria, the Nexus 7" can be a phone and I used it yesterday to make a few calls. It works great but if I really wanted to use this device as a phone, I'd want a bluetooth headphone because a 7" tablet is not ideal for talking into.

The three apps that I use a lot that aren't on my Nexus 7" home screen are Instagram, Tumblr and Kik. Instagram and Tumblr are not available on the Nexus 7". I hope these companies fix that because I would use these two apps a lot on this device to follow folks on Instagram and Tumblr. Kik only works on one device at a time so if I put it on the Nexus 7", it would stop working on my phone. So it's not on my tablet.

But the main thing I use the Nexus 7" for is reading, primarily on the Kindle app.

Nexus kindle

Reading on the Kindle App on the Nexus 7" is a lot like reading on the Kindle Fire. But the Kindle Android app is not quite as responsive as the Kindle Fire. I find that I have to be a bit more assertive with my swipes for the next page. That might be a transition thing or it could be annoying. I don't know yet. I think the features are slightly different too. But I haven't noticed anything super different between the two reading experiences.

The bottom line is that I think the 7" tablet is a great form factor and I prefer it to the iPad for a bunch of reasons. It is more mobile. It is lighter and more comfortable being held in one hand. And I like the amount of a page that is rendered on the 7" screen. It allows me to read more quickly.

The good news for iPad/iOS fans is that Apple is apparently going to come out with a 7" iPad soon. So you don't have to go Android to get the 7" experience. But if you want to try Android or you want to try a 7" experience right now, you might give the Nexus 7" a try. It's available for pre-order for $199. I don't know when it will broadly available but I suspect soon.

Some Thoughts On July 4th, 2012

I woke up this morning thinking about patriotism, the american flag, and of course, this picture of JLM's office from the video you made for me and the GothamGal on our anniversary.

July 4th

That's a lot of flags. I particularly like the large one hanging sideways.

I am not overtly patriotic like JLM, but I certainly feel tremendous gratitude to the founding fathers who put together this incredible country we call America. It is a land of freedom and opportunity and incresingly tolerance. I am very proud to be a child of and a citizen of the USA.

We talk a lot about the problems facing America here at AVC. Kid Mercury tells us that we are headed for a financial meltdown of proportions we haven't seen and can't fathom. I appreciate that perspective and I appreciate all the folks who point out the problems we can't seem to get our arms around right now.

But the America I know and love is well summed up by Winston Churchill who said:

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.

I am optimistic, chronically so. It comes with my vocation and it comes with my personality. I think we can and will tackle our challenges here in this country. It sure feels like we've tried most everything else by now and so my hope is we are close to finally doing the right thing.

And so, on our birthday, I pledge my allegiance to this wonderful country, and I pledge to do what I can to help America continue to be an incredible land of opportunity, freedom, and tolerance, where dreams can come true, as mine have.

Twitter and the Metaverse

I've been reading Snow Crash and there's this great passage when Hiro is in the Metaverse and he explains:

The Movie Star Quadrant is easier to look at. Actors love to come here because in The Black Sun, they always look as good as they do in the movies. And unlike a bar or club in Reality, they can get into this place without physically having to leave their mansion, hotel suite, ski lodge, private airline cabin, or whatever. They can strut their stuff and visit with their friends without any exposure to kidnappers, paparazzi, script-flingers, assassins, exspouses, autograph brokers, process servers, psycho fans, marriage proposals, or gossip columnists.

This book was published in 1992!

This is what social media in general and Twitter in particular has done for celebrities. They can "hang out with their fans" online without "physically having to leave their mansion, hotel suite, ski lodge, private airline cabin, or whatever. They can strut their stuff and visit with their friends without any exposure to kidnappers, paparazzi, script-flingers, assassins, exspouses, autograph brokers, process servers, psycho fans, marriage proposals, or gossip columnists."

I don't think I've seen Twitter's value to the big names that increasingly make up its content consumption explained so well. And this was written 14 years before Twitter was created.

I am heading back to Snow Crash for more insights now.

MBA Mondays: Asking An Employee To Leave The Company

I don't like using terms like "fire" or "terminate." To me they have too much emotion attached to them to be appropriate when splitting with an employee. I like to say that "fred was asked to leave the company" or "fred, we need you to leave the company." That works better for me and, I think, it also works better for the person who is being asked to leave the company.

But more than how to say it, I think how you do it is paramount. Here are some simple rules along with some color commentary on each:

1) Be quick – once you've made a decision to let someone go, move quickly to do it. Don't procrastinate. Do get things buttoned up (terms of departure, departure date, how it will be communicated, etc) but once you've got things in order, have the conversation.

2) Be generous – Unless the employee has acted in extreme bad faith or done something terribly wrong, I like to be generous on the way out. I like to give some severance even if it is not required by company policy or contract. I like to vest some stock that may not be required to be vested. I like to paint the departure in as favorable light as possible. And I like to say good things about the person once they are gone. I like to be generous in financial terms and emotional terms. It makes things go easier for everyone.

3) Be clear – Do not beat around the bush. Start the conversation with the hard stuff. They will be leaving the company. Be clear about when and how. And be clear about the financial terms and other aspects of the separation. Do not mince words and do not say confusing things. Most employees in this situation will ask for reasons. Have them lined up in advance and be clear and crisp when describing the reasons. The reasons for a split do not have to be the employee's fault. They can, and often are, the company's fault. In startups, employees are almost always at will and it is the CEO's right to ask anyone to leave the company for any reason. So just be as honest as possible, be clear and crisp about the reasons, and don't turn this into a long involved discussion.

4) Get advice – There are some situations where the company has some potential legal exposure in these situations. When you are a small company, ask your lawyer about the specific situation so you know when you have one of them on your hands. When you are a larger company, your HR team should know when you have one of these situations on your hands. But make sure you are appropriately advised about a departure before sitting down and having the conversation. In the off chance you have a tricky situation, you will need to handle it differently and you will need advice on how to do that beyond what is written in this post.

5) Communicate – Once the employee has been told about their departure, you should immediately communicate it to those who will be affected in the company. For executives and co-founders, that means the entire company. So figure out how you are going to have that conversation immediately after you have the conversation with the departing employee. Be consistent with your messaging. Don't tell a departing employee one thing and the team another. People talk. And they will quickly figure out that you are spinning, bullshitting, or something worse if you give different messages.

When an employee is asked to leave the company there are two constituencies you need to think about. The first is the departing employee. The second are the remaining employees. How you deal with the departing employee will be noticed by the remaining employees. Even if the departing employee was not liked, a bad cultural fit, or worse incompetent, the remaining employees will have some empathy for them on the way out and if you handle it well, that will send an important message to the team. I find that a lot of inexperienced managers miss this nuance and it hurts them. They think they need to "look strong" to the team. They do. But they also need to look fair and humane. This is a big opportunity to do that.

I will finish with a few words aimed at the boss' own psyche and then suggest some further reading on this topic.

Asking someone to leave the company is never easy. I don't know anyone who enjoys doing it. But it comes with the territory. You don't have to learn to like it, but you have to learn to do it well. The thing that helps me and, I believe, helps everyone in this situation is knowing that you are doing the right thing for the company, the remaining team, and all the stakeholders in the business including customers, partners, investors, etc. When you put it in those terms, doing this unpopular chore becomes a bit easier.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, I think Ben Horowitz has written well on this subject a few times. I found these links below from Ben's writings and would encourage you to go and read them.

Preparing To Fire An Executive

Demoting A Loyal Friend

Lies That Losers Tell