Aug 13, 2014

Experience


God, what a mess, on the ladder of success

Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
- Paul Westerberg

I was in a board meeting the other day at a company we have been investors in for a bunch of years. It is run by a small, great group of people, who built a good social product that did reasonably well - many users - but never broke out and achieved those hyper growth rates associated with services that have network effects.

Until this spring, when the service caught fire, adding hundreds of thousands (or more) of users a week, tens of millions of sessions a day, top 20 status in app stores the world over. Many things they had been thinking about for years started to work. At this meeting, I listened to updates from a bunch of the team members including the founder and in areas such as systems, community, product and analytics. And as I listened to these people I knew well and had heard from many times over the past few years, it occurred to me they had changed. It was not that they had suddenly become successful - after all it's early days and this company will face many more ups and downs in its journey. It was that they have been through a transformative business experience. Rebuilding a product on almost no budget, making gut calls and decisions, managing a massive growing, international and vocal community. They were now presenting to us as experienced business people, confident in their plans and in command of their data and themselves. 

They now had experience. And it is going to be fun to watch what they do with it.

As amazing as it was to see, it also humbled me. For how could I possibly advise and counsel them on the things they had experienced? I know nothing about operating a distributed moderation team in multiple languages. Nor little about building a redundant real time system handling millions of requests a day with almost zero latency and no down time. 

I remember when I started to work at AOL in mid-1990s and on my second day there I was told to negotiate and document a relationship with AOL's then-largest marketing partner, American Express. I was given the old deal to refer to, and little else. Everyone else was too busy to guide me. I cried at home at night with what seemed to be an insurmountable task - I had never done this before. But we got it done - I don't recall we even got it done particularly well - but it was done. The next deal we did was better because by then I had at least a modicum of confidence, of experience. The next one even better. I imagine in some way it got me here, so I can bank on that journey as my way to add value.

I've always been a big believer in the concept of the "beginner's mind" - that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But I'm not so sure that principle is always applicable. A little experience also goes a long way, which I re-learned this week.

Jul 15, 2014

Sometimes wrong


"I ain't often right, but I've never been wrong"

About seven years ago I came across an online music service that, instead of charging fixed fees for the digital files (there was no streaming back then), instead used a formula based on demand where the price changed over time. For example, a song 
initially would cost $0, thus appealing to the trend setters who want to discover something first, and be incentivized to download and share. Later the price would rise as demand increased, to $0.99 or more. And, finally, even further down the road, the prices could decrease as demand waned.

This service was called "Amie St" and I titled the blog post Amie Street Is The FutureBut I was badly, badly off in my profuse praise and prediction (Ugh - I wrote: Amie St "is the future of music distribution."). For Amie St's model and business did not really survive. My incorrect praise and predictions, however, do survive.

I was reminded of this of a few weeks ago when Songza, which arose out of Amie St and by the same team, was sold to Google. Reminded of how misguided I was, but also that sometimes maybe in one's errors of judgement there exist some pieces that make sense.

VHX is a company we have invested in that empowers artists to sell their work directly. It is platform with a number of components that connect various artists together. Very different from Amie St. Maybe. 

Yesterday, a bunch of disparate filmmakers who have used VHX before joined together to sell their films collectively, as a bundle. These artists don't necessarily have to have any relationship with each other - VHX allows these bundles to occur on the fly if they desire.

The bundle is called The Creativity Bundle because each of the films deals with the creative process of different kinds of artists - video game makers, font designers, sign painters. Two interesting things about the bundle are the bundle itself (allowing different filmmakers to become, in real time and on the fly, digital distributors  - studio like, if you will), and that the price is "set your own." You can pay as little as $1 for the bundle. 

VHX and the filmmakers are publishing the results, on the bundle page itself, right below the "buy" button. As of this morning at 6am ET, the average price paid was $7 for the bundle, with 25% paying $15 or more, 15% paying $1, and people from Germany and Italy being the most generous, on average, in paying for the bundle.

This is an experiment of sorts: about giving artists more control (and money) with distribution of their films and how they are sold; about looking at the role of a media distributor in a different, and more fluid and digital, way; about not assuming that one price fits all. Some of those principles may not work. But also all of them may be right. 

I'll hardly make the mistake again of making an out-loud proclamation that something is the "future" of anything. But I woke up this morning with a little less despair about my past incorrect public predictions. I wasn't right, but maybe also I wasn't totally wrong.

Mar 28, 2014

Ego

Ain't lost yet, so I gotta be a winner
- Paul Westerberg

A number of years ago we were fundraising for betaworks. I can't remember if this was the first or second financing, 2007 or 2008, but we'd been out talking to various financial and strategic investors for a few months explaining the story and model. One of those investors was someone we had previous close relationships with and one who potentially could be strategically relevant and important to our business; we assumed we'd get a warm reception there, which we did. This investor was indeed receptive, but was taking a while getting convinced that our model made sense for them. They didn't say no, but they didn't say yes either. This was frustrating, as it is for anyone raising money, because we couldn't seem to fully interest them over what felt like a long period of pitching. We knew that the betaworks "story" was different, but we were ourselves convinced we could describe it and model it in a way that made sense, and thus we had conviction that this was a rare investment opportunity (which is not to suggest it actually was a "rare investment opportunity" - it may or may not have been - just that we believed that to be true, and more than that we believed it actually to be a truism). 

The financing round ultimately came together with a bunch of other investors, as these things do, with a lot of momentum and demand towards the end of this process. In fact, there was more demand than we actually needed or likely wanted. After we had agreed to the outlines and terms and amount of the fundraise, we went to work putting the documents in order and moving to a close, without the investor mentioned above that we couldn't earlier convince. A few days before the close, this investor reached out and said that, yes indeed, they would like to participate, in a material but very small (relatively to the amount of money we were raising) way.

These people were friends; this entity was strategically relevant to things we were doing; the amount was small. But we said no to them. They had plenty of time earlier, they had their chance, it was a hassle for us to now deal with it. No.

On a Sunday afternoon, the next day or so, an old friend of mine called me. He had no stake in this investment whatsoever, but he knew the parties involved. He said to me, in effect, think about this entities money, this investment, another way: if we thought it made sense for us at one point why did it not now, at the end?

At that point, I realized that it was our egos that had rejected this investor, not good business judgement. Ego has to come into play in starting a company, some solid belief that what you are doing is right even though it hasn't been done or other people tell you it's stupid. Ego allows you to face the rejection and the ups and downs. Ego enables you to convince other people to come on board when they have numerous other options. Ego matters.

But ego can also be short sighted, if you allow it only to be a shield for the rejection that inevitably comes, instead of a way to seize opportunity. We decided we wanted to reject the investor, as part of that shield.

The good news is, we reconsidered it later on that Sunday, after I got that call, reevaluated the whole situation, called them up, thanked them for their interest, and they became an investor the next Monday. A good one too, over time. Years later, I am still trying to make sure that I don't again let ego get in the way of a good deal.


Feb 10, 2014

Amazon Web Services as Metaphor

Amazon Web Services are defined as "a set of services that together form a reliable, scalable, and inexpensive computing platform in the cloud.” This definition belies just how profound those sets of services actually are. I remember back in 2008 watching Nate, Todd, Kortina, others, spin up web apps in seconds, letting their creative juices flow almost instantaneously from idea into live services (from thought into expression), some that worked and some that never saw widespread visibility. Those that worked, we added capacity, services, as needed, thus variablizing the entire product development process. For someone like me who grew up in the Internet of 1997, to watch this was nothing short of revelatory. 

But aside from the technical aspects of AWS, as impressive as they may be, maybe they also created another more meaningful change in the way we all work. By changing the context of the provision of back end technical services, AWS created an explosion in the types of content - web services - that were then created (context > content).

But maybe they also shaped, or rather re-shaped, the metaphor of creation in a fundamental way, by breaking down what was once thought of as core and instead providing those on a variable, unbundled, basis. And by doing so dramatically expanded what was possible for entrepreneurs.

I think the same thing, the same metaphorical change, is happening now in domains outside pure Internet services. As such we are seeing emerging "AWS like" stacks that support the creation of new businesses in other areas and ways, but represent the same type of profound change in freeing up the creativity of people to build. And as I think about it - this is thrilling.

For example, take the world of science, scientific discovery, scientific entrepreneurialism. Here's what a potential "AWS" stack looks like today: Experiment is a way to fund scientific discoveries; qb3 is a biosciences incubator network in California; Science Exchange is a marketplace for experiments from leading and upcoming labs; Peerj is an open access research publisher. This stack (and I am just listing four pieces) thus supports science entrepreneurs through a set of services that includes research, funding, incubation and experimentation. And this is not theoretical - it's happening - Pearlstein Lab has used a combination of Experiment, Angel List, Rocket Hub, Science Exchange and qb3 to assist and fund their scientific and innovative endeavors. 

The same thing is happening in the consumer products space. Here is the emerging stack for consumer products startups: Incubation Station, in Austin, an accelerator for CPG; Circle Up, connecting consumer brands with investors; Whole Foods, through their local producer loan programs; and Storefront, temporary retail space. 

What about film making - maybe the stack here includes Kickstarter, VHX and VimeoUSV has made multiple investments in all these areas.

What these all represent to me are new stacks for different domains that help solve financing, production and distribution problems. But also something much more - they are the result of a profound shift in the way creation happens, a shift away from friction to free form, on-the-fly, componentized innovation. Just like Amazon Web Services taught us.




Jan 27, 2014

"Who are you? Where are you? How are you?"

Over the holiday, I was visiting my mother on the upper east side of Manhattan. To get to her place from the subway I needed to cross 86th Street at 3rd Avenue. I've been crossing that street since I was 5 years old, it's a horribly crowded corner. On the east side of the street are public and private bus stops. On the west side are numerous retail shops and a movie theater, and at the corner is the famous Papaya King hot dog stand which attracts hungry cab drivers pulling over in front all day long. And 3rd avenue itself is a heavy traffic avenue, as cars are heading uptown and out of the Manhattan.

But the other day, at that busy corner, I noticed something that looked like this, a new curb cut, right into front of that Papaya King:



The rhythm of NYC is such that we need to keep moving and in motion; as a result, waiting to cross a street by standing at the curb is not enough, we must walk into the street to get going or keep our momentum. As a result, it can get dangerous, particularly on a busy corner like 86th/3rd, where cars are also pulling over right at that very curb.

There are a few ways a city could handle this - put a full time traffic cop there or hand out prodigious tickets, all in an attempt at changing the behavior, but all also likely to upset some people because they are relatively aggressive moves. 

But the city here didn't do that - instead it simply extended the curb. 1 or 2 days of work, and the problem of the danger to pedestrians on a busy corner is significantly reduced. Small solution which solves a big problem, in a pleasant way.

A few years ago I was down in New Orleans and I met some of the local entrepreneurial community - start up types, developers, investors. They were trying to solidify their small but growing community. They told me how that day they had met with a local councilperson about ways to help grow this community. She offered them a package of tax breaks and advantages to help them financially. They told me how they thanked her, but what they really needed, what mattered much more than tax breaks, was simply a dedicated bike path from the area to the east of the French Quarter, where startup companies were moving into cheap and often previously abandoned warehouses, across the Quarter and into to the main business district, where they often had to go to meet with investors. Build that, he said to her, because we need easy, fast and inexpensive ways to get over there with our bikes. A small way to solve a bigger issue for them than taxes.

Last week, I met a great entrepreneur with a growing mobile service that is early in its life. Being early, they are still figuring out the best market fit, but due to the nature of the service, at this stage the power users actually drown out new users. Their usage gets in the way of newbies coming onto service and having a great, first experience. In trying to solve this, he first implemented a very large friction and roadblock solution - the heavy users had to pay for their usage. But that was problematic: the service gets better with more overall usage. He'll pull that paywall out - he told me he is now going to experiment with a bunch of small things, maybe simply asking the heavy users to basically slow it down. Small changes.

I was thinking this morning - these 3 random events reminded me of something. Then I remembered. In the early 70s, the Grateful Dead decided to build a fan club. So, on the record sleeve for Skull & Roses they included this:



Here's the thing about why small things matter - even the choice of simple words becomes important. In collecting names and addresses this way, an ask of time and commitment of the Freaks, what always struck me from even when I was a kid up until now, was these three words they included: "How are you?" 

Imagine that, your favorite band, company, friend, service, asking you how *you* were. 3 small words, and a huge, lasting movement was ignited. Small is not the opposite of big, it actually creates the large. 



Jan 8, 2014

Ain't Done

My house ain't done, but it's alright, floors ain't level, but I ain't some suburbanite. Who cares about bathroom tiles, straight lines and building codes and Chinese wind chimes. My house ain't done, but it's fine, come out here from time to time, in December for the snow and in July to watch the roses
 - Mark Kozelek

The most insightful essay I read in the last few months is called "Unfinished, unfair and brutally difficult: What developers should steal from DayZ" over at Polygon, by Ben Kuchera. 
It's ostensibly about gaming, but really it's about empowering media, and media consumers, and respect for users and their choices and decisions.

It describes a game DayZ, released on Steam, that sold 172,00 copies on its first day of release. For $29.99 a copy. Here is the page. It is currently the top seller on Stream. #1.

From the game page itself:
WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.
Moreover:
In some ways it’s barely working: Your axe will often make gunshot noises, zombies can clip through the floor, and the game can feel unresponsive and hard to play. It’s not a welcoming experience. I was addicted within hours.
"In some way it's barely working." Yet, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. "The process often feels like listening to the demos of your favorite bands as they’re in the studio recording."

Here's the thing, new technologies - Steam, Youtube, VHX, etc. - are now changing the very definition of what a game, movie, show - a piece of "content" - actually is. The definitions are more fluid, more experimental, more experiential. By taking on those attributes, I believe that the the content makers are implicitly showing an enormous amount of respect for their viewers, their customers, by allowing them in at a much earlier stage of their process. By allowing them to experience the craft.

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin acted in 16 and directed an additional 20 short films. 36 films in one year. Thereafter he went on to make some of the greatest feature length movies ever. He perfected his craft in public, with a different format, that people paid to see.

Sometimes being unfinished actually is a way to create and to share more value.


Nov 19, 2013

Small Pieces, Khan, Quizlet

One way to build something big is to build something big. Like a pyramid. Or a multifaceted bank. Or a university. Another way is to build something that is architected to be full of small pieces, small things, small units.

Khan Academy is one of these "build small things" that became big services. Another is Quizlet. These services, among others, have probably done more to advance knowledge for millions of people than anything else in the last decade. But I think that they work not simply because they advance learning or that their respective missions are to offer education to as many people, anywhere, and for free, as possible. 

In fact, they may work in spite of those lofty goals. Instead, they work because they start small in what they can accomplish for an individual user. Quadratic equations. French animal names. Telling time in Spanish

At a specific level, they each work in a way that is consistent with how people think and, 20 years into the web, desire to find information. For example, someone may think to herself, "I forget how to subtract fractions." They then conduct a search for it, and Khan delivers a 4 minute video lesson. The whole process may take 5 minutes and is hardly interruptive.

Similarly, on Quizlet, a student will think, and search for, "-AR verb combinations in Spanish." Flash cards appear and the lesson is on its way.

Then, in aggregating all these small pieces, something much grander and transformative appears. Before anyone realizes it. Knowledge and sharing bases that are used by millions and millions of people.

(Khan, of course, has historically centralized production of this content. Quizlet, on the other hand, has a peer produced model.)

This morning I was reading an incredible article about a company that reads Amazon reviews to find out what consumer electronic products people want - and then manufacturers and sells them in small batches. This company's customer research, if you will, is to simply listen to what people are saying on a micro level on another service. I want a bluetooth speaker for my shower. It thereby can and does compete against the behemoths of its industry. "A tiny company with one speaker can compete against anyone."

Small things can mask grander ambitions. They also can be an amazing way to create something really big.

Nov 7, 2013

Liberate, Animate, Cooperate, Instigate

A few months ago I watched on video a talk by Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University (where I went), called "Beyond the University." In this talk Michael lays out a framework justification for why a broad based liberal education matters. If so inclined you can watch it here. It's great, but I am not that interested right now in the merits of that discourse, as interesting as they may be.

Instead, I've been thinking of that framework he lays out. He says that liberal education matters because it provides four things for individuals: the ability to liberate, animate, cooperate and instigate, in their lives and the world. More specifically,

*liberate - giving people more autonomy and be able to decide on their own destinies  
*animate - helping the world come alive 
*cooperate - listening to your neighbors to improve our collective lot
*instigate - the ability to instigate change in your world 
My wife Susan just got back from a conference - people who were united over a medical condition and who came together, initially through blogs, Twitter, Facebook. This was the first time many of them were in the same room together - in person at this event. They didn't describe it this way, but as I listened to the planning and heard about goings-on at the three-day conference, I realized that they too had used tools - modern, Internet based tools - to liberate themselves in part from a medical system that wasn't paying attention, to animate what that world looks like, to work with each other, and to instigate change.

Perhaps it's that simple. What if these four concepts - liberate, animate, cooperate, instigate - are the foundation of the current great and future special Internet services that we have, we need, and we deserve. 





Oct 25, 2013

Community Surprises

There are many examples of online communities, as well as many examples of ways to engage, promote and respect those communities. At USV we think about this a fair amount.

But sometimes online communities can surprise you in unexpected ways. Sometimes in being the shepherd of a group of people and businesses you can learn about yourself too. Sometimes the way you interact with those communities takes different shapes than you would otherwise expect. 

Science Exchange is a transactional marketplace for scientific experiments; USV is an investor. The participants in this marketplace are on the one hand scientists with specific experimental research needs and on the other hand organizations with capabilities to do pieces of those experiments. Recently, the company moved down the street in Palo Alto to a new office, one that is open and bright. With large, blank walls. Looking at the blank walls was not fun, they needed to fill them with something. Being an early stage company, buying art wasn't really an option. So, they asked their community, the providers, for help. 



Which those providers did. Various members sent in pictures of the work they do. Microscopic images of the experiments they run. The main office wall is above (Tess did a great job here). Below is some more. On the left is "Histopathology" (the providers named the "works" themselves) - a microscopic picture of gut wall cells. The provider that sent it in is the Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource which provides histology services (you can see their prices and ratings on the linked page). 



The art in the right of the additional picture below is an image of mouse vasculature from the Mouse Biology Program - again, you can see their services on the linked pages. 




When you walk into Science Exchange the effect is striking. Last week I was there and I was buzzing. Gorgeous images line the walls. It is pleasing and interesting to the eye. The office is filled with artwork. Artwork from and of their scientific community providers. Of their science and services. Just looking at the wall, it not only looks great but I imagine it also enhances the team's commitment to their mission, to what they are doing, and their focus on customer service.

There are many ways to increase the connections in your online community. Sometimes they are not what you think. Sometimes they involve another kind of hacking.


Oct 21, 2013

Inspiration, move me brightly

"But no matter, the road is life" 
- Jack Kerouac

Everyone is, rightly, talking about the wonderful and heartfelt and authentic essay by Macklemore about the incredible year they have had. It's that good, it should be read. It is a measure of how, sticking to your principles can lead to wonderful things.

But something about it bugged me, something I couldn't quite figure out. Then I realized it. Macklemore writes:
To date we’ve sold over 1 million albums in the US this year.  We’ve received platinum plaques from counties I’ve never even been before.  We have 3 multi platinum singles (Thrift 7x, Can’t Hold Us 4x, Same Love 2x).  We’ve performed on Ellen, Conan, Letterman, Leno, Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Billboard Music Awards, Good Morning America and the MTV Video Music Awards.  It was just announced today that we’re nominated for 6 American Music Award’s, and yesterday it was announced we’re performing at The Grammy’s nomination night.
What confused me was that while, yes, he and his band deserve to be rewarded for all the hard work, using as metrics millions of albums sold, multi-platinum singles, performances on late night television, awards shows, Grammy's, are only one measure of validation. More so they are all *analog* measures of validation. That is, they all existed before the advent of the Internet. 

In this new, DIY, direct to fan, social connected world, there are many many more measures of what one can now aspire to. Indeed, isn't the promise of the Internet in part the broadening of who can create, and what the results of that creation can potentially be? Isn't the promise of the Internet the allowance for the actualization of many different types of goals. Macklemore's is, in fact, not the only one. Maybe it isn't the important one.

For example, Jonathan Wilson seemingly plays live and on record with anyone and everyone. He has released only 3 records in the last 6 years but is seemingly omnipresent.

James Jackson Toth, Wooden Wand, on the other hand, has released dozens and dozens of records, under different names and formats. He is very active on twitter where he tweets about his partners' PhD candidacy as much as anything else.

Yo La Tengo tours and releases on their own schedule, just the same as they have been doing since 1986, 25+ years. Bob Dylan has been on the Never Ending Tour since 1988 - touring continuously according to whatever strange rhythm he sees and in venues varied and random. Lyrics Born is one of the best lyricists of the last decade, and he makes e-books and is Kickstarting his latest tour as Latyrx. Jay Babcock decided to bring back Arthur Magazine as a broadsheet.

Most of these artists will never play from the Barclay's stage, they wouldn't know how to get to an awards show, and for the most part late night TV means something very different. But they each, and many many others, seem to find their inspiration in a very different output, but by also going directly to their listeners, their supporters, their friends. And maybe they each aspire to a very different path, a do-it-yourself path, to get to that output, using many if not all of the same tools and techniques as Macklemore. Yes indeed, Macklemore is one of the good ones, I'm psyched for all of that. I just don't want to forget the other paths and results afforded to other artists, who only aspire to traveling their own road with their own form of results that don't get measured on charts, but who are just as worthy of attention, and are also just as successful. Just search for them on the Internet, you will find them, they can be found.

Oct 14, 2013

Context > Content

"The context in which makes possible an underlying 
sense of the way it all fits together
despite our collective tendency not to conceive of it as such
- The Books, "Smells Like Content"

I was with a friend the other night, and he was talking about how amazing and varied the programming on "television" was these days. That day, in fact, he had just finished watching an entire season of some program or another, Breaking Bad I think, in one sitting. He said something to the effect of, isn't it incredible, it feels like the golden age of television is happening right now in front of us.
We started talking about why this was the case, why one could describe this as the golden age of television. Why writers, actors, producers, seemed to be flocking to the television medium? Are better writers writing for tv? Are better actors choosing tv over film? Maybe, but maybe also it's none of this.
Instead, perhaps such amazing content is being driven by the context available to these creators.
What's changed in the last few years for television is both the delivery mechanism and the format. By that I mean that new technologies and tools have afforded television peeps the opportunity to start producing content that is both (a) episodic and (b) could be consumed in binges. In other words, through the proliferation of niche channels, streaming video, DVR, torrents, television producers were able to create content that people could stay with - have a relationship with - for a long time, even years. Or, more simply just watch a whole series in one setting. Or both.
As Casey Pugh of VHX told me the other day, maybe "TV shows are just essentially really, really long movies. Stories that require more than 90 minutes to explain to build characters, create settings, etc. It seems like it would be a dream for any writer to write a TV show over a movie."
The change in context, then, created the change in content. Moreover, a change in context necessarily creates a change in content types, forms and formats. 
Traditional distribution forces content to be designed a very specific way. But in a digital world, there is no industry standard. There is now flexibility for a creator to make their exact vision and give it to people the way they want. With complete control, creators then have the ability to create entirely new mediums.
Suppose the current creative television environment is in fact more like what many consider the golden era of film of the 1970s -- driven by stories, small first runs that can grow into big national events, word of mouth as the primary driver for attention, not advertising. The Internet enables all these structures and behaviors at epic scale.
For example, with a network such as VHX, to name just one (yea, we have invested in it, sure), a creator or filmmaker can, in minutes, create a web site and sell or give away or whatever they want, their content in whatever format they want with whatever frequency they want. With network level tools and data to allow for creative packaging, packages, and offers. Complete. Control. And in doing so, have a 1:1 relationship with people who care about their stuff. 
Last Friday at Brooklyn Beta I saw Tim O'Reilly give an incredible presentation where he talked about the history of the Internet and some universal principles that arise from that history. One section of his talk was about language, the words we use. He quoted Edwin Schlossberg: 
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."
Which got me thinking, the same principles also apply elsewhere. Just as in television, maybe right now the context for all of film has changed. The content, therefore, also will change, and already is.
The golden age of film may be about to start.

Sep 30, 2013

Andre Agassi, Do What You Love, Bob Dylan


If dreams came true, oh wouldn't that be nice
- Bruce Springsteen

A Google search for "do what you love" returns about 3 million results. Steve Jobs is often quoted in support of this obvious proposition of how we all should lead fulfilling, rewarding lives, and settle for nothing short of love. The thing is, something about this phrase, this idea, always bugged me. I just realized why.

A bunch of years ago I was in a meeting listening to a technology company pitch a potential buyer, regaling with all the incredible things, the potential value, that would be unlocked by tying all these tools together to give the buyer unprecedented visibility into their hiring processes. The buyer listened closely, and said "I agree with everything you describe. But it's the nirvana state, the end goal. What I want to know is actually how we get there."

Do What You Love is a nirvana state, an end goal, and output. It too simplistically describes the nuances, the ups and downs of life, the journey. It's valid, sure, but maybe not helpful in the day to day.

I was reminded of this while reading Andre Agassi's wonderful memoir, Open, last week. Agassi - one of the greatest tennis players ever, winner of numerous tournaments and accolades. On the first page of  his memoir, the very first page, he lays it down:
"I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have."
His journey ends with peace and yes, love, but man was he tortured getting to be the best in the world at something. It almost destroys him. Hate, not love.

It made me think of my professional journey. When I zoom out and look at it from the perspective of 20 or so years, it looks like a well-planned out series of moves and progressions, doing things that look pretty cool. When I zoom in more closely it looks more accurately like a series of serendipitous, random steps, lots of missteps and mistakes, and many many many regrets. In fact, not until 2006 or 2007, when I reconnected with John and started betaworks, can I ever really say that I was satisfied, maybe even happy, and definitely the only time I really felt good at something. Not until I was 40 fucking years old! And there were parts of building betaworks - getting office space, hiring people, setting up payroll, forming subsidiaries, raising money - that I am not sure I would describe that I "loved" doing. They were tedious, stressful, and hard.

But I was happy and satisfied and intellectually challenged. Maybe that's enough? 

Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, is also a remarkable, and related, work. At the height of his fame, coming off an unreal string of about 8 epic all-time great records, he dropped out. On the one hand, he is pretty clear why: to focus on being a parent, a father. Incredible. I also read another, related but different, reason. You see, Dylan couldn't explain to himself how he was able to channel something within and without to become maybe the greatest songwriter, and poet, ever. Quite simply, he didn't know how he did it. And he feels it slipping away. So he himself slips away into a place of different satisfaction.

I've come to the conclusion that doing what you love is the end game, the nirvana state. I'm not sure it's really even that attainable. Instead, it's probably a good framework, but also maybe nothing more, only to view the journey you take to get somewhere. That's more useful.






Sep 20, 2013

Training Wheels

With every mistake we must surely be learning

I was having breakfast this morning with a new friend who happened to come of Internet age when I did with a similar set of experiences (he was one of the first 50 employees of Yahoo). As we started to wax nostalgic over the good old days, oh around 1995 or 1996, I felt like maybe we were dipping into sentimental garbage. But then I thought that, maybe some of the past is in fact prologue; or, even if not, there were pioneering services, that either implicitly or explicitly inform everything we do. We don't talk about them enough, we don't salute them, we may mock their simplicity or wacked user experience. But they gave us the muscle memory to build upon, to strive to create better things. They were for some of us our training wheels. So here's to the crazy ones, some of the originals:
Bulletin board services - I first dialed into the SonicNet BBS from my apartment on T Street in Washington DC sometime around 1994 or 1995. The modem was at best 9.6 kbit/s. A green text on black background interface, impenetrable, but mindblowing to connect to . . . people . . where are they . .  chatting, talking, messaging. It felt almost dirty, yet taught us we could, indeed we would, connect to the world.
Usenet - oh beloved usenet, maybe the original real time social network, interest based, with norms, rules, again people. I lived for rec.music and alt.binaries. Never translated into a browser based UI, maybe it was never meant to be. This taught us sharing.
AIM - instant messaging in general but when we unbundled AIM from AOL in 1996, for maybe a year things were really beautiful. We learned instant, but also I would submit we learned how to spread memes.
Webrings - my favorite of all. How would we navigate this wide open possibilities of the web? Directory services - sure - but they felt top down. Ok, let's just organize it ourselves. Let's share traffic. Let's do it ourselves.
Of course, this is just my list. But these were how I learned to ride a bike. I won't forget that.

Sep 12, 2013

Sharing


This is for me the essence of true romance
Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind
Libations, sensations
That stagger the mind
-Steely Dan

We are in the middle of the sharing age - Internet media allows (and empowers us) to share our thoughts, friends, sounds, videos, pictures, feelings. This is fundamental, and good: self-expression is a base human need and desire, and for too long our media was projected at us, and not with us.

I was reminded of the power of sharing, a different kind of sharing, the other day. I was walking down the street with a friend, a very successful entrepreneur and creator. He and his partner had sold their last company, and were now embarking on new projects, new companies; this time however they would be starting their new things not together but separately. 

In telling me this, my friend turned to me and said, "we've given each other equity in our new companies, you know, we want to diversify our risks." He told me the number, it was a material amount.

As we walked on, I thought to myself that his reasoning - diversification -  was exactly backwards. They were starting Internet ventures - both very ambitious and crazy risky ideas. The last thing they needed to do was have more equity in that.

But I don't think that's what was really going on. I think they were just simply sharing. Sharing equity. No strings attached. Doing it just because, maybe to them, it felt like the right thing to do.

At that moment I was humbled to my core. And tried to think about things that have been shared with me for no real reason other than maybe it was right just to share for the sake of sharing. 

It's really easy to share a song lyric that means something to you and I will keep doing that. I was reminded this week that it's also easy to share things that require a different kind of time, a different kind of forethought and planning, that result in a different kind of smile. I need to do more of that. 




Aug 12, 2013

Fearless


A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys


Last winter someone gave me a Nexus Android device they got at a Google event. It didn't have phone service so I gave it to my son to play with. He took to it immediately, especially having a mobile camera. He started snapping pictures of everything. Then sharing them. As a result, earlier this summer we got him a camera - a simple Canon point and shoot. He also took a photo class this summer. At the end of the class they printed their pictures on a office printer and made photo albums. 

It reminded me of a photo class I took when I was 14 or 15. I remember clearly the purple hue of the dark room; I can still recall the smell of the chemicals and the magical process of watching a photo come to life in a pool of substances. I remember the photo kids with their beefy eyes dilated from too much time in those dark rooms. I got sad for my boy, thinking that he would totally miss the process of creation, the science of it, the solitary and group pursuit. He wouldn't get to experience the context, rather than only the content.

Then something happened. He started fooling around with his "cameras." Snapping pictures of the world as he, a 4 foot kid, saw it. He began testing the limit of what an automated camera could do. For example, he found that if he put his finger in front of the lens it would focus on the finger, yet if he pulled the finger away right while snapping the photo, he would get a blurry yet interesting photo: 


He also experimented with layered pictures - taking photos of photos:


In a taxi yesterday afternoon we were chatting and while looking at me and talking he lifted his camera to the window and snapped a photo of the outside motion, without looking. A new style he was trying, he told me.

All these techniques were driven by his ability to see the photos immediately after taking the picture. He could see, right away, the results of his tinkering. Something rarely available in the past.

As a result, he became fearless. About experimenting, using what he had but also trying new techniques, methods. Seeing the results and reacting to them, altering them, discarding them. In real time. He's wondering if should save up and get at some point a digital single-lens reflect camera. Maybe he will, maybe he will lose interest in all of this.

Regardless, a new technology, one that I worried took away a most important part of the process for him (using the lens of my own experience), instead taught him something much different. And maybe more important. And he didn't need to inhale any chemicals to learn that.