BREAK THE INTERNET TO SAVE NET NEUTRALITY

We have just hours. The FCC is about to vote to end net neutrality—breaking the fundamental principle of the open Internet—and only an avalanche of calls to Congress can stop it. So we decided to help “Break the Internet” on our sites. You can also support on TwitterTumblrYoutube or in whatever wild creative way you can to get your audience to contact Congress. That’s how we win. Are you in?

More info here.

 

The First Rule of VC Engagement a.k.a. “Don’t Be Lazy”

After eight weeks of being heads down working with our portfolio companies, I’ve started to come up for air and do some public facing stuff. I was recently on a cool panel at Denver Startup Week where we talked about scaling towards profitability. Another highlight was doing an AMA with David Brown, co-CEO of Techstars, at an awesome event called Patriot Bootcamp. Last week I did my first interview as a VC for a monthly magazine. The interview was a great experience because it was the first time in more than three years where I didn’t have a person from corporate communications in the room to make sure I said the right things. This interview was just me and my Foundry partner, Brad Feld, answering the reporter’s questions based upon what we actually thought. What a crazy concept!

In all of the above exchanges, I was asked some version of “what’s the number one thing that you see entrepreneurs get wrong when pitching venture firms?” The answer is obvious. You would only need to live in my email inbox for one day to see the mistake for yourself. The most common mistake is that entrepreneurs often violate what I call The First Rule of Engagement. This rule is based around the notion that the results you will get out of any given communication are directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the longer the email you write, the better the results you will get. On the flip side, the first rule usually means that a highly personalized email will get better engagement than a generic email that has been blasted to the masses.  

I became keenly aware of this basic engagement concept more than 15 years ago while working at Aquent. In my 11 years there, I learned as much about business as I learned in the 16 combined years working at EDS, Oracle, IBM, Gnip, and Twitter. Much of what I learned came from working side-by-side with Aquent’s CEO, John Chuang. The first time I remember hearing John talk about his engagement philosophy was during a business unit update meeting. The leader of the business unit was expressing disappointment around the limited feedback we were getting from customers on an important new product. The email we had sent to customers was getting a low response rate, and the open ended questions we had asked in the email were capturing very few insights. John responded with a rant that included stuff like “Why are we sending an email!? Why don’t we pick up the phone and actually talk to customers!?  Better yet, why don’t we get on a plane and go visit them!?” John explained that the low effort needed to create a generic email didn’t match the high value of the data we needed to collect. John was basically pointing out that when it comes to engaging people, you get out of it what you put into it!

Electronic communication has fundamentally changed how businesses operate over the last 25 years. From email to Slack to text messaging, it has never been easier to quickly reach people and exchange ideas. But, email in particular can be a very lazy tool.  You can write a single email in a few minutes and send that message out to thousands of people and fool yourself into  thinking you’ve accomplished something. Unfortunately, recipients can almost always identify when an email is generic versus personalized for them. The key to effective engagement is making sure you understand the importance of the response you desire and then using the right amount of effort to get the response you want.  

So, how can entrepreneurs use the First Rule of Engagement to improve their VC pitches? The first step is to personalize each email introduction based upon your knowledge of the recipient. Yes, this means you actually need to research and understand each individual VC you are pitching. The good news is that most VCs love to talk about themselves. We write blogs like this one and use lots of social media where we share our thoughts and interests. The nature of our job practically requires that we be public facing. There is also plenty of public data around which VC firms have invested in which businesses. Finally, most VC’s write about their investment philosophies on their websites.  As a point of reference, here’s our thematic approach to investing. You can and should use all these individual insights to determine if a particular VC is likely to be interested in your business before you send the email. If you determine there is a match between your business and a particular VC, focus your pitch on why there is a match. The recipient may not ultimately like your business idea, but there should be no doubt in the recipient’s mind why you decided to reach out to them specifically in the first place.

Sending a personalized email can make a real difference, but your efforts around engagement shouldn’t stop there. In my case, I’ll freely admit that I’m more likely to engage with an entrepreneur if I’m introduced to a new company/founder from someone I know and trust. Again, there are plenty of tools out there that can help you get connected to me via someone I know. LinkedIn is an obvious tool to use, but there are plenty of other creative ways if you are willing to look. For example, review our portfolio of companies. Do you know anyone who works at one of our portfolio companies who could introduce you?  Also, look at who I engage with on Twitter and other platforms. Do you know any of these folks who could introduce you?  If you are willing to put in a little effort and think creatively, you might find an introduction to a VC which will help get their attention.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of inbound emails I get from people looking for an investment can be boiled down to this: ”Hey, we’re working on something amazing. Take a look at this attachment and let me know if you are interested in investing.”  When I get these emails, I think to myself “you spent zero effort thinking about why I would be interested in investing and that is exactly how much time I’m going to spend considering it.”  I respond to these inquires with a generic message that indicates I’m not interested.  I’m always amazed when the original sender responds back “okay, can you introduce me to others who you think would be interested?” Are you kidding me?! Not only did this person put zero effort into our relationship, but they are now asking me to do work on their behalf because they were too lazy to do it themselves. Running a company is damn hard. Signaling to an investor that you are too lazy to do basic research is a strong signal that an investment in your business is not a good decision regardless of the opportunity. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

___________________

Also published on Medium

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When I took my first business trip as a Gnip team member more than 6 years ago, I accidentally brought home my hotel key in my back pocket. My kids were very young at the time & they thought the credit card sized piece of plastic was amazing. They were actually arguing over who got to play with it next. So, on my next trip, I brought home another key. After a month or so, the novelty wore off and the kids stopped playing with the keys, but I kept collecting them for some reason that I didn’t consciously understand at the time.

This picture is of all the keys from all my business trips over the last 6+ years. Each one of these keys is one to seven nights away from my family. I don’t like to dwell on it, but I missed some important moments of my children’s young lives while I was away. There were more than a few trips where I left the house with one of my kids crying and begging me not to go. Countless calls home at night started with “Dad, when are coming home?” The most heartbreaking calls were when I would hear “Dad, I wish you could have been here to see (fill in the blank).”. I often got off the phone thinking I was living a sad and unavoidable Harry Chapin – “Cats in the Cradle” prophecy and it depressed me in ways that I can’t really put into words.

I’ve had friends admit that they sometimes look forward to business trips because it gives them a break from their families and home life responsibilities for a few days. That thought has never crossed my mind. My usual travel routine was to compress each trip to as short a time as possible. I typically tried to depart late at night or early in the morning to minimize time away. I constantly tried to cram two days worth of meetings into one day so that I could get home as quickly as possible. This routine often resulted in me coming home completely depleted of energy and desperately needing sleep, but always happy to be home!

When I reflect upon this visual tower of entrepreneurship, there were definitely some game-changing and a few life-changing wins that resulted from these trips. But, I don’t remember the wins nearly as much as I recall the setbacks. As one example, there was the time I had prepared for weeks for a big meeting in New York. The entire team knew this meeting was happening and was excited to hear the outcome. When I landed in LaGuardia, I had a voicemail waiting for me from my meeting contact: “Hey, sorry to have to miss you this trip but something has come up. Let’s get something scheduled early next year when things calm down over here.” Back on the plane I went wondering why I had allowed myself to lose an entire day of my life and weeks of prep for something that wasn’t going to happen. I also had the whole plane ride home to think about how I was going to break the news to the team. Unfortunately, these types of “setback” trips weren’t that rare. My best guess is that more than half of the trips that these hotel keys represent ended with an outcome that was not what I had hoped would be achieved on the trip. The goal of the original New York trip was eventually realized, but it took many more months and several more trips to NYC to make it a reality.

One friend recently suggested that I should convert these keys into a piece of artwork for my office as a reminder of the journey. I’m not sure if I’ll ever do that, but if I do make it into art someday I will definitely call it “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back”. Running a startup is damn hard. Being physically away from my family was hard, but they might suggest that it was harder when I was physically present but I was mentally off thinking about some issue with the company. Your startup is often on your mind in some capacity every waking moment. Failing is hard, but I sometimes think succeeding is even harder because the expectations you put on yourself and the expectations of others (investors, employees, etc.) just go up with each success. I had an amazing run at Gnip and later at Twitter. But, it came with a lot of sacrifice and some permanent scars. I try to embrace the scars because I believe that I can continue to learn from them and (more importantly) I can help others learn from my experience.

I’m two months into my new career as a partner at Foundry Group, and I’m loving every minute of it. My partners Brad, Jason, Lindel, Ryan, and Seth are incredible but I already knew that would be the case before I joined. I’ve been spending the bulk of my early days with our portfolio companies. I knew some of these teams already, but I’ve also been able to spend a ton of time with teams I didn’t know. These teams are building amazing products, but the thing that has struck me most is the quality of the teams themselves. Across the board I’ve found these entrepreneurs to be humble, smart, passionate and unwavering in their commitment to make their companies work. If there is one theme that stands out to me about our portfolio more than any other, it is that we’ve invested in really great people.

I’m still adjusting to the fact that I’m now sitting on the other side of the entrepreneurship table. Telling someone I’m a venture capitalist doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue yet. That said, I know my most important asset as an investor is that I’ve been on the other side of the table and I understand that life on that side is nothing but endless challenges. My hope for my career as a VC is that I never lose the empathy I feel now for entrepreneurs. I have a strong visual reminder if I ever forget.

Joining Foundry Group

Today we announced that I’m leaving Twitter to become a partner at the venture capital firm, Foundry Group. The blog post on foundrygroup.com does a great job explaining the background and context around this decision. Of course, I had to announce the news via a tweetstorm which you can see below. I’ll be back in the fall to talk about my journey into venture capital. See you soon!


Auburn Spring Commencement

One of the greatest honors of my life was delivering the 2016 Spring Commencement address for Auburn University. The best part was that my niece, Annie, was one of the graduates in attendance that day receiving her masters degree in speech pathology. It was wonderful to experience the whole day together.

I knew I was giving the address almost a year in advance. In theory, that was plenty of time to prepare. In reality, I procrastinated. Virtually no one outside of my immediate family knew that I was going to give the address. Looking back on it, I felt real pressure to deliver a meaningful message and just thinking about it or talking about it made the feeling worse. To put things in perspective, I’ve given lots of talks to large audiences in my day and I never get nervous. I’m always excited to address a large group. This was different.

A few months before graduation day I was having dinner with friends. One of my dinner companions was my dear friend, Jason Mendelson, who had recently performed the National Anthem to open a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. As Jason talked about his crazy singing experience, I got up the courage to talk about my upcoming speech. Jason’s response was “Wow, that’s a lot of pressure. What are you going to say?”.

I looked around the table. All the friends gathered were people who I admired for their personal and professional accomplishments. The group assembled personified my view of what you can accomplish if you are willing to work hard. More importantly, this group had accomplished their goals by doing it the right way. This was a group of incredibly kind and compassionate human beings. I blurted out my response to Jason’s question with “Work Hard. Be Kind.” A few people nodded with approval and everyone went back to eating. I wrote the key points of my speech that night in my hotel room in about 15 minutes. Here are the results if you have 13 minutes and 48 seconds to spare…

This Is Auburn

I love Auburn University. My dad is an engineering grad from Auburn. My older brother is an engineering grad from Auburn. I’m an engineering grad from Auburn. My middle son, Matthew, is always talking about how he is going to go to Auburn. He’s only ten so we’ll have to wait and see.

My relationship with Auburn started from the moment I was born. When I was a small child, I vividly remember listening to Auburn football games on the radio every Saturday in the fall. I grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee which is 320 miles from Auburn, Alabama so the radio reception was very poor. We had a 30 foot antenna on our house and my dad would often climb up onto the roof during the middle of the games when we lost reception. I can still remember him screaming down “IS IT BETTER NOW?”. We weren’t allowed to turn on any lights or use any electricity during the games because there was fear it would mess up the signal. Auburn’s football team wasn’t very good in the late 70s, but we still worked very diligently every weekend to tune in and hear them lose most games.

It has been great to reconnect with the university over the last few years. When Auburn reached out recently to ask for help with their “This is Auburn” capital campaign, I was delighted to help. Here’s me talking about Auburn…

Moody On Management

My good friend Brad Feld is hosting a series of guest posts from yours truly on his world-famous blog: feld.com. The series is entitled Moody on Management. Here are a few of my favorite posts:

Trust Can Scale

The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends

Guidelines For Interviewing At A Startup

Getting The Compensation Conversation Right

Let me know what you think.

Why I’m Excited About Social Data

I contributed a guest post to GigaOM this week. In my role at Gnip, I’ve had a blast watching major corporations incorporate social data in to every aspect of their operations. We’re still super early in the adoption cycle. I can’t wait to see how the role of social data continues to evolve across the enterprise in the next 12 months.

You can read the post here.

Boulder & Me

Boulder has a thriving tech community that has been well documented in the last 12 months alone via The New York Times, MSNBC, CNBC, and lots of other sources. I consider myself to be a reasonably active member of the community through visible roles as a TechStars mentor and as the organizer of the monthly CEO Lunch. However, it is the less visible stuff that often makes me feel like a real member of the community. For example, when I leave my downtown office to grab a coffee or lunch, I almost always bump into a local founder or an entire startup team. These chance encounters usually lead to a quick “how’s it going?” chat that can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. I also find myself doing a lot of waving to various tech community folks from across the Pearl Street Mall or as I ride to/from work on my bicycle. I very rarely go anywhere in Boulder without seeing at least one person I know from the tech community.

In addition to these random encounters, I average 5 to 10 emails per week from local entrepreneurs. Sometimes these entrepreneurs have a specific request but they usually just want another opinion on their new business. I try to squeeze in at least one face-to-face meeting per week with local founders/teams and often find myself feeling guilty that I can’t respond to all requests faster. Two quick side notes:

1) Some people have decided over time that they can get bumped up in the meeting queue by offering to buy me a beer. I can’t confirm this technique works, but I can assure you it doesn’t hurt to try.

2) I realize that sometimes people want to meet with me because they believe it will help their chances of getting in to TechStars. For the record, meeting with me will do very little to improve your chances of getting in to TechStars. Your team, your application, and your attitude will get you in.

Being part of the Boulder tech community is fun and rewarding, and I take great pride in being part of something that I believe is truly special. But, here’s the thing, it wasn’t always like this for me. There was a point in time where I felt almost completely isolated living in Boulder and I was fairly miserable working from here. As the late Paul Harvey would say, here’s “the rest of the story.”…

I moved to Boulder from Boston with my wife, Sarah Ahn, and our one-year-old son, Jackson, in 2004 (we have three amazing kids now). We bought a house within walking distance of downtown and I’ve worked in various downtown office locations ever since. Even though I basically forced Sarah to move to Boulder, she was the one that immediately embraced the community. She joined a bunch of different organizations, became a board member of a local non-profit, and made a ton of new friends. Within a couple of months of moving to Boulder, it felt like she knew half the people who lived here.

It was clear from the start that raising our family in Boulder was going to be a great experience. The problem for me is that I was the only person from our company working from Boulder. Everyone else was scattered about the country with a high percentage of people working in Boston. Going to work in my one-person office each day was like going into an isolation chamber. I would often go to work, spend a full day in the office, and get home without having a single face-to-face conversation with an actual human being. I spent all my time on email, on the phone, and on videoconferences during that time. The lack of real human interaction was definitely taking a toll on me.

Then one day in 2007 Sarah showed me an article in the local newspaper about four guys who were forming a new tech incubator in Boulder called TechStars. The only person I recognized from the article was Jared Polis. Sarah suggested that I reach out to see if they needed any help. A few weeks later I had coffee with David Cohen. The plans for TechStars were coming together quickly and David appeared to have it under control. I asked how I could help and he said he wasn’t sure yet. He mentioned that they had plenty of mentors signed up already. We agreed to stay in touch and I left the meeting feeling like I most likely wouldn’t be involved with the program going forward. Things were hectic enough for me at work and there didn’t seem to be any obvious ways for me to contribute from the start.

Fortunately for me, the impact of that first TechStars class on Boulder was unavoidable. I couldn’t visit a sandwich shop or read a local blog that first summer without running in to one of the TechStars companies. Through a series of events that I don’t completely remember, I ended up having a few mentoring sessions that first year with a couple of the companies. I also attended Investor Day that year and was blown away by the quality of the pitches. I got a little more involved in 2008 and started attending various tech events around town that year too. By 2009 I was fully engaged in TechStars and the Boulder tech scene. We launched the CEO Lunch in the fall of 2009. I distinctly remember having lunch one day with Brad Feld shortly before I started the CEO Lunch and he said “you are part of the community, just enjoy it.” Brad’s message was simple but impactful: you can give to the community, but you can take from it too.

These days I feel like I take way more than I give. I’ve developed some wonderful friendships, participated in a thousand stimulating conversations, and witnessed first hand a bunch of talented people achieving their goals. Somewhere along the line I realized that Boulder wasn’t only a great place to raise my family, it was a great home for me.

Thanks Boulder!