Category Archives: Rants

The IRS Debacle

IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washing...

IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Light is now shining on the IRS’s practice of slow-rolling applications for tax-exempt status by groups perceived as anti-government, and more specifically, anti-Democrat.  In the run-up to the 2012 election, cries of foul are everywhere.  Even the President is getting in on the action, as the Wall Street Journal points out this morning, “President Obama fired acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on Wednesday, two days after claiming it was an “independent” agency. That was certainly a rapid re-education.

Heads should roll.  When our Government uses its bureaucratic powers to single out groups it views as dissenters, it smacks of abuse and perversion of power.  Especially when we are talking about a tax authority, which has the undeniably strong powers to garnish wages, seize property and so on.  According to early reports from the Treasury Inspector General of Tax Administration, the IRS did indeed use its bureaucratic powers to single out groups, “the political cases took the IRS some 574 days on average to process compared to 238 days for other nonprofit applications.”   This is unfair and to have it occurring in the run up to a tight Presidential election heightens the cynicism and suspicion of my reaction.  Certainly the IRS never took 574 days to tell me that it thinks I owe them more money on my taxes… It will be interesting to watch this continuing investigation.  Transparency is needed here, and I’ll be watching closely this process.

It is also interesting to watch the spin machines getting rolling.  In particular, I’m now reading editorials seeking to blame groups like the Koch brothers and court decisions like the US Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.  The transparency of the blame shifting is breath-taking. It’s like a child trying to blame the dog for eating all the cookies.  Sure, perhaps big spenders on both sides of politics–the Koch brothers or George Soros–need greater restrictions placed on them.  Yes, reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of the USSC in Citizen’s United.  And of course, the IRS does need to take reasonable steps to verify that groups seeking tax-free status actually qualify.  But none of that justifies the approach the IRS took here.

The IRS abused its power.  And as an agent of the executive branch, it’s important to investigate how this occurred and whether others in the executive branch were in on it.  It’s that simple.  All the other stuff, campaign finance reform and dealing with Citizens United, all that’s work the Congress is and has been welcome to take up for years.

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Death Knell to the NCAA? Here’s to Hope.

English: National Collegiate Athletic Associat...

18 months ago in the New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera wrote the stark and useful, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.”  In it, Nocera rightly calls out the hypocrisy in college sports as “[taking] your breath away.”

College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach; Ohio State just agreed to pay Urban Meyer $24 million over six years. Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks.

The article is absolutely worth reading for any fan of college sports.  What really blows my mind about college athletics is that the schools don’t have to cover the health care insurance of it’s players.  So for example, when Louisville’s Kevin Ware suffered his famous leg breaking against Duke, it turns out Louisville is off the hook for expenses related to the injury after he leaves the institution.  The core reality is that as purely unpaid volunteers, “college athletes aren’t employees, so there’s no workmen’s compensation.”  This is terrible and I consider it immoral.  College athletes under scholarship for sports like football, hockey, even basketball, should have access to some type of longer term assistance for chronic injuries and chronic care.

Also, as a capitalist with libertarian leanings, I favor college student athletes being able to get paid for their skill and value.  This is purely on a freedom basis.  These athletes are 18 and over in most cases.  They also undeniably create value, as the NCAA’s revenues clearly show.  In any other field, they could get paid.  There’s no good reason they shouldn’t be paid for the value they are creating here.

In the NCAA’s response to Nocera’s article, NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy argues that Nocera’s proposals “fail to make ‘walking around sense.'”

 They are based on an illusion that the NCAA is somehow restraining trade. In fact, if anyone in America wants to start a sports league under the Nocera plan, they are free to do so.

I, for one, would love to see someone in America start a sports league under this or a similar proposal.  Specifically, I’d love to see the SEC do it.  Last week, the SEC & ESPN announced the launching ot the SEC Network, a new 24/7 network with a 20 year agreement.  Maybe this is nothing.  But I’d sure love to see it pave the way for the SEC to break free of the NCAA and become the first college athletic conference that pays its athletes.  Fairly, transparently, but paying them.  I think it’d put in the open what’s already happening.  And I can’t imagine it woudl do anything but improve the quality of SEC football.

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This above all: to thine own self be true

Recently, my favorite professor from my time at Duke, Professor Jody McAuliffe, invited me to speak to a group of Seniors who are graduating with a major or minor in Theater studies.  I put the following speech together.  I would like to thank all my friends who provided great perspective and thinking as I prepared this talk.  

Intro

Thanks for having me tonight, I’m honored.  Also, loyalty is an important thing for me, and I’ll tell you right now that I’d run through walls for Jody, so when she asked, I wasn’t going to miss it.  It is great to visit Duke and to get a chance to speak to you graduating Seniors who are majoring or minoring in theater.  Congratulations.

In business, you learn early that it’s important to give people a quick headline of what you’re talking about.  So here’s my headline, my executive summary.  Of all the great lines in Shakespeare, my favorite is this, from Hamlet: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Impossible to argue with, it basically covers everything you’d ever need to know in under 10 words.

I suspect that I’ve got a very different background from the types of speakers you generally have here talking to you.  I’m no longer involved in theater.  I’m in the technology business.  At one level, this is totally different.  At another level, there’s more relevance to the two efforts than you’d think.  And that’s really the lens through which I’m going to talk: namely how did I go from doing all this theater at Duke to what I’m doing now? And what, if anything, was relevant from Duke and theater that remains useful to me today?

And I hope it’s relevant, as there is this question that’s out there when you major in theater in college.  Perhaps you have had it asked of you.  It certainly was asked of me.  And the question is this: what can you do with a degree in theater or English or whatever liberal arts major you may have taken?  Well, my view is, quite a bit.

I’m excited to speak with you tonight to share my experiences and perspective, with really two goals in mind.  One is to offer a perspective that says all roads remain open to you—if someone asks you what you can do with your education or degree, your first response should be thinking instead why couldn’t you do anything.  You might not become a professional athlete, and you might be a bit behind on becoming an astronaut.  But literally any other route is either open to.  Or it can become so, if you work hard enough.

My other goal is to share some of the key learning I took from doing a lot of theater and going to Duke.  Much of the benefit of this learning wasn’t obvious to me at the time, so hopefully highlighting it now will be useful to you as you sit here tonight getting ready to graduate.

About me

Here’s a little about me.  I did a lot of theater while I was at Duke—I acted in a bunch of plays, directed and wrote one, stage managed a few, and worked on student film projects.  And I was so passionate about becoming a professional actor that I graduated after my Junior year so I could move to New York and get started.  I performed in several small productions there, joined an improvisational troupe at the New York Comedy Club, and joined Actors’ Equity.  But after a few years, I decided that I needed to make a switch, and switch I did.

Now I work in technology, as a venture capitalist.  In theater terms, I think the right analogy is that I’m a Producer.  If you’ve ever seen the terrific Tom Stoppard movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a great exchange between Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck’s character) and Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson’s character), where Ned asks Hugh, “Who are you?”  and Hugh responds, “I’m, uh….  I’m the money.”

That’s one way to think about what I do, I’m the money.  We invest money into technology companies when they are very, very early in their development, maybe not even a script on the page, so to speak.  And our goal then is to do everything we can to help that company turn into something that is sustainable, important, impactful—a great performance.  On one level, yes, I’m the money.  But I say that tongue in cheek, as it turns out that there’s a lot of work involved beyond just writing checks.   Before I became a venture capitalist, I had worked for about 10 years at Microsoft, in sales and marketing. I worked for Microsoft in Seattle and in Japan.  I also started my own company.

Reflecting on all this, here are some of the important lessons and perspectives that I have found valuable based on my time as a theater guy at Duke.

This above all, To thine own self be true

The first play I was in at Duke was Hamlet, which I started working on about a week after I arrived fall of my freshman year.  I played Bernardo, the castle guard at Elsinore in Act I, scene 1 who is famous for having the first line of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.  Bernardo starts the play by yelling “Who’s There?”  Then with his partner, Fernando, the two characters do a Shakespearean equivalent of the start of a Law & Order episode—two police officers out on a quiet night of partrolling the castle walls, before all hell breaks loose when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father shows up.

Not a lot of dialogue for me in Hamlet, but what was great is that I heard the play so many times through rehearsals that I knew almost all the lines of Hamlet by the time we went to production.  It was awesome.

“This above all, To thine own self be true.”  Polonius, Danish King Claudius’ chief counselor, kind of a Donald Rumsfeld type, is giving a bunch of fatherly advice to his son, Laertes, before Laertes heads off to France.  And he drops this gem.  It’s actually kind of unfortunate that such an important piece of advice is delivered by Polonius, as he’s such a windbag.   But I guess a blind squirrel catches a few nuts every now and then.

Irrespective of the messenger, the message is an important one.  And I think this being true to self is one of the most important benefits of dedicating time and study to theater here at Duke.  Namely, you are building a habit around prioritizing doing something you love.

As you go out into the world, you will very likely find that pressure is going to increase immensely to follow a crowd, to fall in line.  Student loans need to be paid.  A career needs built.  Etc.  And you are going to be presented with choices, and you’re going to have to live with the choices you make.   I don’t know how you think about prioritizing become a performer or writer and waiting tables in New York for potentially a decade or more, versus say, becoming an talent agent, or heading to medical school or teaching yourself to code or becoming a teacher or a chef or joining the Peace Corps.  Any of those paths are fine, you just have to weigh in your own head and heart how you balance priorities like the importance of doing something you love, supporting yourself and making an impact.

Any path is fine, so long as it works for you.  What is not fine, and what can happen, is you make choices that aren’t true to yourself.  You do something for the money, for the status or prestige, not because you are passionate about it.  This is problematic.  Because once you go into any career as a Duke grad, you’re going to be competing with a bunch of other people just as smart and talented as you, all able to work hard, in whatever field.  And you want to know who stands out when it’s you and a bunch of other smart, talented people?  The person who stands out is the one who loves what they do.   It’s obvious.

And I don’t say that to be a downer at all.  I say that to encourage you to embrace and nurture the habit of following your passion.  Know that there are opportunity costs—right out of school, Chekov won’t pay the bills the same way a company like Cisco will. But you are the only person who’s going to have to live with the choices you make.  So my advice is, be aware that you’re making a choice.  Weigh your options, and in general follow your heart.   “Tthis above all, to thine own self be true.”

Now I’m extremely fortunate that I make a living doing something I love doing.  I work hard in terms of hours spent.  But most days, the time flies.  In all honesty, on most days, it hardly seems like what I do is “work”.   It seems more similar to what I’d do if you just let me do what I’d do naturally.  Which is a pretty powerful experience.  And once you find a fit like that, its amazing how unstoppable you’ll become, how hard you’ll work—because, no surprise, once you find yourself making a living doing what you love, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.  Everything just kind of fits together.

Be unstoppable

One of the great sayings in theater is that the show must go on.  Whatever disaster befalls you onstage, you adjust, you improvise, and you get things back on track.  You don’t stop.  Whatever happens, whatever you do, you can never stop.

And what a great philosophy that is for life.  In whatever you do, theater, business, anything, you are going to encounter adversity and rejection.  That’s a constant, a given.  The question is whether you can keep getting back up each and every time you get knocked down.

I call this quality being unstoppable.  And this is such a key, key quality to develop.  I wish at Duke we’d talked about its importance more.  The best story of unstoppability is one that I heard recently.  It is about Sylvester Stallone.  The story, briefly, is this.  When he was starting out as an actor in New York, he was turned down by something like 150 agents.  He ended up going back to one who had rejected him and asked for a meeting, and the agent agreed to meet him at the end of the day.  Sly showed up at the office and the guy either never came out and blew him off.  The agent arrives at the office the next morning to find Sylvester Stallone asleep in the chair.  He’d spent the night, waiting for the guy.  The agent then gets Stallone a gig as an extra in some movie, and Sylvester Stallone does it, but realizes that working bit parts as an extra won’t really get him to his goal of becoming a movie star.

To achieve his goal, he decides that he’s going to have to write and ultimately star in a movie.  Fast forward some time, he sees a boxing match that inspires him to write the script for Rocky in a fury or writing.   He tries to sell the script, and for many more months, he’s rejected again and again and again.  He’s broke.

After a lot of work, he gets someone willing to buy the script.  The opening bid is $100,000, which in the 70s was a ton of money, especially for a guy who’s broke.   He refuses to sell the script unless he can be the star in the movie.  The buyers won’t let him star in the movie, and eventually they raise the price to $400,000.  But he continues to refuse, because they won’t let him star in the movie.

At this point, he’s so broke that he can’t afford to feed both himself and his dog, so he sells his dog, by standing outside a liquor store asking people if they’ll buy his dog.  He finally finds buyers who buys his dog for around $50.  Think about that for a minute.  He sold his dog instead of taking money for a script.

Eventually, he was offered $25,000 from someone who wanted the script and would let him star in the movie.  He accepted this, and the first thing he did was go back to the liquor store to find the guy who had bought his dog.  3 days later the guy who owned the dog came to the liquor store, and Rocky offered him $150 to buy the guy back.  The guy refused.   Sylvester Stallone ended up having to pay $15,000 to the guy and offer him a part in the movie to get his dog back.  And he did.   And the rest is history.

I think about this all the time.  In my work, I’ve had so many rejections, made so many mistakes.  I’d like to think that I’m good at ignoring rejection and just continuing to keep coming.  But I’m always asking myself what else can I do to become more unstoppable?  Have I let some obstacle block me from what I want to do?  Have I given everything I can to make the reality I want come true?  If not, what else can I do?  And why aren’t I doing it?

Basically, if you refuse to give up, you will make it.  In whatever you do in life.  It’s just that simple. So the message is this: be unstoppable.

Work really hard

The other great thing about “the show must go on” is that it implies that you’ve got to do whatever’s needed to get the show up and running in time for opening night.  I think that doing as much theater as I did while I was at Duke instilled terrific work habits.  Theater was a major commitment for me, from the time I arrived at Duke until I left.  I recall the summer after my junior year here, I was finishing up my degree, and I was directing a version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm that I’d adapted from the novel.  To finish the script, I had to write for about 48 hours straight.  There was a 72 hour sprint before the opening performance, where I was working around the clock to get everything done.  But to see the curtain go up, and to feel the adrenalin—the excitement and fear that goes with seeing all that work as a writer / director leap out of your control and into the reality of a staging—what a payoff.

For any of you who’ve performed, directed, written, stage managed or whatever at a high level here, you’ve had those long nights.  Those nights have served me for a long, long time—when I need to get work done, I know how to hunker down and stay up until it’s done.  This too is a great benefit to the work you’ve been doing in theater at Duke: when you have to get the work done, you’ll know what it takes to deliver.

Push your comfort zone

Another skill from theater that I lean on is the mental toughness that comes from getting out there and stepping onto the stage.  So many times in my working career, I’ve had moments where I know that I’ve got to push myself beyond my comfort zone and I’ve got to make the investment pitch, I’ve got to close the sale, I’ve got to recruit the candidate, do a press conference.  So many times, its 5 minutes until I’ve got to go in and do something—whatever it is, it is so clear that right here, right now, I’ve got to bear down, lock in, and deliver.  And it is so similar to the excitement and nervousness I got before heading on stage.  Working in the theater gives you skills here, trust them.

Treat people well

I read a story when I was in high school about a former president of one of the big movie studios, I think it was Paramount Pictures.  It’s always stuck with me.  One of the things he was famous for was being nice to everyone.  Here was this huge mogul, super powerful guy in Hollywood, and he knew the names of everyone down to all the receptionists, all the valet parking guys, and he was always really polite to them.  Someone asked him once, basically, what gives?  And his answer was, hey, there’s no upside in treating people badly, especially in an industry where you never know who’s going to be the next Tom Cruise.  I couldn’t agree more with this approach: it’s good business.

It’s also just a better way to live.  And I’d say, that if there were one thing that I experienced in my time in the drama program here at Duke that I’d be critical of, it’s that we weren’t quite as supportive of each other as we could have been.  There was a lot of gossip, drama and intrigue.  We should have been more like a team or a family: more supportive, more helpful to one another, in my view.  Because when you get to New York or LA or wherever you go, whatever you do, believe me, it’s going to get a whole lot more cut-throat.  The road will be bumpy and challenging.  Having smart and talented friends here from Duke to lean on will be important in whatever journey you go on.  Cherish your friends, keep them close, and treat them well.   Support each other.

Take care of yourself

Finally, and then I’ll get to Q&A, I’d like to close out by saying take care of yourself.  We say that a lot to each other.  But to me what I mean is concrete:  Stay fit.  Eat right.  Don’t smoke.  Try to always save some money, no matter how small an amount.

There was a period a few years back when things were really, really challenging for me.  It felt like walls were closing in on all sides.  Personally, professionally, it was really dicey.  And I wasn’t taking care of myself.

And all hell broke loose, not just physically—ballooning up on weight, crazy back pain.  But mentally too, I was scared, anxious.  Not really knowing what to do, I just knew that things were wrong, I got myself into fitness, joining a Crossfit gym.  And after about 45 days, I can remember the moment, all the stress seemed to melt away, and I said to myself,  “I got this.”  Everything since is just a matter of working whatever challenge is in front of me at the time.  I’ve faced challenging times since, but with a more firm foundation, it’s not a problem.  I’ve got this.

Stress, rejection, nerves—those are part of the game, sorry.   It’s not whether you experience those, it’s whether you can respond to them. Take care of yourself.   It will keep your energy high and your mind clear.

Conclusion

So that’s basically it.  I hope that you’ve had a great ride at Duke.  As you head onto your next steps in life, I sincerely hope that you stay true to yourself.  Start there, mix in some unstoppability, some hard work, some risk taking, and treating people well, and you’re going to be just fine.  You’ll be better than fine.  You’ll be great.  Thanks and take care of yourself.

 

 

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Adding some internet thinking to internet education

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Today’s New York Times features an editorial titled, “The Trouble With Online College.”  The editorial argues that rather than offering college-level education at vastly increased distribution and much lower costs that “study after study” evince that these efforts are flawed, particularly for those who are struggling with classwork.

This argument and the evidence supporting them are thin and wanting; indeed this piece showcases that online education detractors are clinging to an old framework of thinking, failing to  consider and assess new opportunities that online education enables.

A major shortcoming in this editorial and the critics’ arguments, is a lack of appreciation and understanding of internet economics and offerings and their fundamental differences from traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ ones.

The New York Times piece, for example, opens by highlighting Stanford University’s offering by “a pair of celebrity professors” who attracted more than “150,000 students from around the world  to a noncredit” course.  It then criticizes this approach by calling out huge attrition rates: 90% or more in large classes.

This attrition is natural and right in line with other internet offerings.  This Stanford course, and many like it, are free or nearly free.  In the internet world, free service offerings can attract lots of people who sign up and try things out.  Large numbers fall off.  It doesn’t make the service offering a failure, it’s just the way the internet works.  Indeed, large scale internet businesses built on a freemium business model (Evernote and Dropbox) for example, have gained success in offering a free trial experience that a small percentage actually convert over an pay for.  A similar theme is at work with internet education offerings that are free or nearly free.  For example I’ve signed up for free classes at MIT just to check them out that I’ve not completed.  I’ve paid (under $100) for other online courses, some of which I have completed. The fact that I don’t complete the course doesn’t mean I don’t get value from it, it just may not be a fit for what I’m looking to learn.  Indeed, having so many educational offerings that are so much cheaper and easily available than going to a university or even a community college is hugely beneficial.

My second critique of this editorial is that there is no mention of an even more fundamental difference internet-based education offers relative to traditional classroom learning: namely the ability for a student to truly proceed at his or her own pace.  In a traditional classroom environment, the instructor has a certain syllabus or plan that has to be achieved by a certain timeframe–a semester, a quarter, whatever.  For some students, the pacing is perfect.  For others, its too slow, and for others, its too fast.

With online-based learning, a student has the ability to proceed at her own pace–fast or slow.  If you don’t get trigonometry as quickly as the teacher demands, well, you can just keep going over it until it makes sense.  Further, if the suggested resources don’t make sense to you, you are a Google search away from finding other online offerings that explain the topic slightly differently, in a manner that may make better sense to you.

The good news here is that despite the critics, today’s students (the vast majority of whom grew up in the internet age) are already adjusting.  I’ve heard anecdotal stories of college students who download podcasts of lectures from classes similar to those they are taking but from rival colleges.  They do this to reinforce learning on the subjects they are taking in class.  But they are also finding that the perspectives that other professors at other universities offers broadens their views on the topic, resulting in better grades from their own classes.  Again, with the power to broaden distribution and slash costs, online educational offerings are going to disrupt education, and students will do this irrespective of whatever critics say.

And this, I think, is a core failure in this editorial.  It underscores that traditional college education thinking remains stuck in an outmoded, costly, increasingly questionable product.  For nearly $200,000 for a private 4 year college, and a non-trivial fraction of that for state and even community colleges, post-secondary education has less and less to show.  Embracing and extending the internet offerings is an unavoidable step.  Leaning on flimsy arguments like high attrition rates, and failing to account for the go at your own pacing just showcases that those embracing the status quo fail to see the transformative changes upon us in education.

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A Reaction to Lance/Oprah: Get After Bullies

Tonight I watched the first episode of Oprah’s interview of Lance Armstrong.  I came to the interview with an open mind.  Or rather, as open a mind as one could have after reading the entire USADA report on the conspiracy Lance Armstrong had led, and the coverup that was orchestrated around it.

The interview was ok.  Oprah was kid-gloved in her questions. But in listening to Lance’s responses, she gave him a heavy dose of the “Oprah Fish Eye,” which I understand from my wife is interpreted as Oprah-speak for “I’m not buying this.”  So net/net Lance didn’t rehabilitate himself much.

But to me the larger story is what a world-class bully this guy was.  He ruined the lives of teammates, employees and vendors, who weren’t able to sustain the Armstrong-led deception.  And while USADA documented Armstrong’s shameful actions in text, the Oprah Interview is exactly the place to put this under a harsh, harsh light.

Yes, Armstrong won a dirty race against dirty competitors.  Yes, Armstrong is a humanitarian who inspired countless cancer victims to fight and fight hard against their afflictions.  But he is also a bully.  A bully who, according to court sworn testimony, could be characterized as sociopathic.   Reputations were destroyed.  Futures were ruined.  All based on the a king among the paupoers of a sport no one in sports had paid any attention to, cycling.  Armstrong’s teammates and confidantes were all just one word away from being bounced out of the highest levels of an industry they loved and into a job as a maintenance manager at a bike shop.  He is a bully of historic proportions.

His benefits to people fighting cancer are important.  He’s an inspiration.  I get this.  But bullying people, ruining people’s lives, their reputations, in order to forward a story is WRONG.  It’s completely wrong.

And it’s wrong, not in a small way.  But rather, it’s wrong in a big way.  In my view, bullying is is as big a problem as cancer.  In today’s world, we are fighting bullying in many places.  We deal with it in our schools with our own children.  We see it as well in far away places where the stakes are even higher–in places like Rwanda or the Sudan where we see genocides.  In places like Thailand and Vietnam where we see human slavery and trafficking.  And too often, we don’t fight as hard as we can on these fronts.

But they are all bullying.  And bullying is wrong.  And it needs to be called out as wrong.  It needs to be shamed.

It needs to stop.  And we all need to call it out.

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Be Careful What You Wish For : Color’s Cautionary Tale

TheNextWeb broke the news that Apple is acquiring Color Labs.  This closes what was one of the highest profile, most hyped startups of the last 5 years.  In my time in Silicon Valley, I’d say Google’s launch of Google Wave and the launch of Color were the top two in building massive hype that then came up really short.  (Do you all remember when people were *begging* for Google Wave invites?)

And that’s ok.  Sh*t happens. New ideas fail every day.  That’s reality.  What *has* changed I think that the costs of failing are dropping.  A lot.  Moore’s Law, the continuing growth and robustness of cloud-based infrastructure and open source tools and development environment, and the development of methodologies like the Lean Startup, have all combined to help teams run customer development cheaply and quickly.  They can build and vet ideas quickly and when they start raising money, they have a much better sense of what works and why.

Color ran counter to this–it went big.  On every front.

I think the cautionary tale is that you should be careful what you wish for.  I was once invited to judge a startup pitch contest.  This contest was held at Color’s Headquarters in downtown Palo Alto.  This was post Color launch, and the bloom was definitely off the rose.  Half of Color’s office space was allocated now as kind of event space, which is where we held this startup pitch competition.

Anyway, before the contest, there was a long networking cocktail type event.  I remember standing there talking to different startup teams.  One of the teams I talked to pitched me their idea.  I said to them, ‘hey, what you’re doing is interesting.  I am not interested in investing in it [for wahtever reason, can’t remember] but let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.’   One of the founders looked at me, then glanced around the room and said to me, ‘Well, there’s a $42m check sure would help,’ referring of course to the monster Series A Round that Color had reportedly raised.

My response: “Look, be careful what you wish for.  If I had invested $42M in this thing, and now half of the prime real estate in Palo Alto was being used as event space for cocktail parties and startup pitches, I would want to fire everything that breathed.  This would make me so angry.  Go out and build something awesome.  Then the world of investors will find their way to your door.”

Too much of the press and Silicon Valley community celebrates the raising of money.  Indeed, a raise is seen as press worthy.  I’m less convinced that its news worthy–some founder convinced some investor to write a check.  Meh.

To me what is news worthy is winning a customer, getting a really high profile, value added partnership nailed and in market, landing a truly world class exec or developer.  The really important building blocks to constructing a real company are what we should be celebrating.  Not that you got someone to write you a check.  Focus there, and do that great and the funding announcements will find a way of happening.

 

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Attending an NFL Game : Not Suitable For Children

This is an Open Letter to NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell and Denise Debartolo York and John York, the Principal Owners of the San Francisco 49er’s.

Dear Mr. Goodell and Mr. & Mrs. York,

I have been a lifelong NFL football fan, and consider myself extremely blessed to have grown up outside of Pittsburgh during the great Steelers teams of the 70s.  The emotional connection and commitment I have to the NFL and to all things Steelers is still very high–seeing the old Coca-Cola commercial featuring Mean Joe Green or hearing old radio takes from Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope still bring tears to my eyes.

I now live outside of San Francisco and am the father of two young boys, 8 and 10.   I am passing on my passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and am developing two of your younger fans of the 49ers and the NFL more broadly.  Its fun for us, and its great to see the strong team and winning tradition of the 9ers returning.

As a lifelong NFL fan and as a father of two, I’m writing to you today to express my extreme disappointment at terrible behavior and language of fans attending your games.  I am disappointed that as the NFL Commissioner and as the Owners of my local NFL franchise that fan behavior is not something that is a higher priority to you.

Here has been my experience attending 49ers games with my children.  I’ve been to 3 with them, most recently this past Sunday, which was representative of the others…

My kids and I enjoy tail gating before the game.  It’s always festive and a lot of fun.  We arrive early, we setup a charcoal grill, we cook, eat and throw a football around.   This is the highlight of our experience.

We then head into the stadium, find our seats and sit down to watch the game.  We are there early, and the stands aren’t yet full.  As kickoff approaches, the seats around, in front, and behind us all start to fill.  Today, we have a large group of guys sitting behind us, clearly all buddies, having a couple beers while they watch the game.

Once the game starts is when the trouble starts.  F-bombs galore from the guys behind.  Every. Single. Play.  “Run the Fucking Ball.”  “Sack the m-fucking quarterback.”  “Hit that fucker.”  Every down.

With a bunch of guys drinking as much as they are and as feisty as they are, you really aren’t in a great space to ask them to watch their language.

I get it.  I get the tailgating and the drinking are a part of the fan experience.  I get that this is modern day gladiator stuff that drives more belligerent fans than you’d have at an MLB game.  But really, does it need to be so profane and so belligerent that families shouldn’t take their kids?  It shouldn’t be this way.

Here are some basic ideas that I think the NFL Commissioner and the SF 49ers could take that wouldn’t cost much that would improve dramatically the viewer experience.

A public service video announcement from your stars, past and present.  When I go to a movie theater, the theater always shows a 30 second trailer reminding movie goers to turn off their mobile phones and not text during the movie.  The NFL should follow that lead.  For the 49ers, get Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, and Vernon Davis on the video screen with a recording that says, “Hi Fans, Enjoy the game and have fun!  But please remember that there are other fans here.  Some are much younger and some are much older.  Have a blast, but please keep you conduct appropriate for all ages.”

Have ushers walk up and down aisles before the kickoff saying hello to fans, and in particular the kids.  The ushers aren’t huge authority figures, but they are human beings.  I think if they walked up their section when traffic was light they could start saying hello to people.  Say hi to kids.  Remind the beer drinkers to watch their language around the kids.

As needed, provide a warning and kick people out.  I believe strongly that the NFL viewing experience should be age appropriate for anyone.  It currently isn’t.  Ushers or others should be empowered to warn fans if their behavior is too out of line.  And if behavior isn’t curbed, fans should be booted out.

Unless and until the NFL and the SF 49ers take fan behavior more seriously, the Jamison boys will be watching our football from home.

 

 

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Mars

Hope from Mars

SCIENCE delivered an epic win this week with NASA landing the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

A jaw-dropping feat of engineering at so many levels, captured brilliantly in this Hollywood style description that is really must watch:

I’ve been a lifelong space geek, and I remain giddy that I’ve shaken the hand of Neil Armstrong.  :)  And so I was amazed to watch and see these photos coming back from Mars, like everyone else.

But as I’ve reflected on this week’s landing, my amazement has been starting to turn into something different.  And the word I’m coming up with for this feeling is hope.

The last several years — basically the past decade — have been a raw deal for most Americans, and little seems to be changing.  More and more of our older generation of Americans are having to cut back massively on their retirement plans, as their funds have been decimated.  More and more recent college grads are graduating with huge student loans and no job prospects.  And if you look at data on how poorly we’re doing educating our youth, you can’t come away feeling good about the broad job prospects of our next generation.

In the face of these challenges, our government at the federal and state levels are both stalemated and broke.  Reasonable compromised approaches to a path forward, the Simpson-Bowles proposals for example, were dead on arrival.  And my sense, purely anecdotal, is that efforts in communities–with community organizations like charities, youth organizations or churches–are not having enough of an impact to make up the difference.   Books like Coming Apart by Charles Murray support this breakdown in community with data.

In the face of all this negativity, this week we got Curiosity, a towering achievement of what can happen when people come together, aim big, and bring their best.  It is an achievement the entire country can take pride in.  And I would hope that in some small way it might help catalyze an effort, on behalf of all of us, to come together, bring our best, and make the country a better place for all of us.

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Tim Hanford’s TED Talk on Trial and Error

I watched this TED talk last week while on a plane, and it’s really stuck with me.  I recommend watching it if you’ve not already.

To an extent, the thrust of the talk is so simple.  The world is a complex place.  As humans, we’re predisposed to think we have the answers, that we *know* in our guts or on a smattering of data points.  In reality, the complexity of our world favors an embracing our ignorance and addressing it by embracing a trial-and-error approach.

Professor Hanford reinforces this trial and error approach with several compelling options.

And what I think is most impactful is his addressing the notion that his point is obvious.  It may seem obvious, he says, but think about how much of what we do in life is based on what we “know” to be true.  How we educate our children, how we feed our world, how we address poverty, etc., etc.

If you really investigate how we address these societal issues, the vast majority of the time we’re doing it on the basis of how we ‘know’ how to do things based on sclerotic, prior thinking based on gut feel or light analysis.

We need more trial and error.  We need more embrace of failure, that throwing an idea out and seeing how it does (well or poorly) is a good thing.  In startup land, this is largely understood, though even in Silicon Valley, we can do better.  But in the broader world in which we live, certainly we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

 

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Virgin America #350 : Contagion Edition

<Writing from 39K feet on Virgin America flight 350 from SFO-BOS>

I’d be interested in others’ perspectives here–what would you do?

We were slightly delayed at the gate due to what the flight attendant on the PA system described as “a medical issue.”  After a few minutes, things were apparently squared away, and off we went.

The “Medical Issue” has become apparent to my family and me.  Two rows in front of us is an infant, vomiting violently and feverish.  (She’s now wearing only a diaper and sweating profusely.)

Yikes.  Having watched the movie Contagion, I’ve gotten a bit more touchy about people just spewing their germs all over the place.  And this scenario is about as uncomfortable a thing to watch as possible.  From two rows behind the child.  On a flight for 6 hours across country.  Makes me nauseous just thinking about.

The captain apparently delayed the flight in order to speak with a doctor to confirm the virulence and appropriateness of having this child on board.  Having watched the child’s illness on this flight from our perspective two rows back, I’d say I appreciate him reaching out to the doc, but I wish he’d stepped up and gotten the family onto a later flight, or that at a minimum there’d been some transparency that from the crew and/or family that we weren’t on a cross-country flight to flu-landia.

What do you think of this?  What’s the responsible path for the family, the flight crew, the captain?  Today its a sick kid.  In future could well be something more serious.

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