The Friendly Wake-up Call

Last year around this time, I had a major medical scare which shook me pretty hard. The details don’t matter, but the takeaway was that afterwards I felt lucky to have not had a more serious problem, despite a bad situation that was totally avoidable. I dodged a bullet. It was a wake-up call.

Last week, I was in the Netherlands, and as always, was enraptured by the water. The water is, of course, a major threat to the Netherlands and has been for centuries, so as a result the Dutch have become known for their water engineering prowess and forethought. Thomas sent me this article on 21st century Dutch water management with regard to climate change, which details the Dutch approach to water management. This line stood out:

“During Gustav, the level was all the way up to here,” Van Ledden says, placing his hand just below the top of the wall. “And Gustav was just a friendly wake-up call. In 50 years, if the sea level goes up 1 or 1½ feet, the level for that storm would be here,” he says, holding his hand well above the top of the flood wall. To make sure that doesn’t happen, the Corps is planning to build a giant storm-surge barrier between Lake Borgne and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

A “friendly wake-up call” is something that’s scary enough to set you straight, but not bad enough to do real damage. It is and incredibly useful thing. Hopefully it should never come to that, but I find that it’s human nature to push things to their natural limits until some sort of wake-up call inspires a correction.

Getting Alignment

I am flying home from Europe today (by way of Reykjavik) and as a result, have a lot of time to catch up on things. I have spent the bulk of the day writing up a handful of strategy docs relating to some of our portfolio companies and subsequently chatting about them.

In every endeavor, whether it’s a startup, a family, a venture firm, or whatever, perspectives drift over time. Things get busy, and we all get focused on executing. And things can get a little out of alignment. A little out of alignment is no problem, and of course we are always course correcting as we go. A lot out of alignment, or little bits of misalignment, over time, that aren’t addressed, can cause problems.

What often happens is that strategy develops piecemeal, over the course of meetings, emails, texts and chats. And while important ideas get discovered this way, it’s also easy to leave ideas half-baked, or questions half-answered (if they are even fully articulated at all). So when I have time, I find that trying to summarize a complex topic in a single document is a helpful step in regaining alignment and making sure we are seeing the whole picture the same way. That’s what I’ve been doing today.

This gets harder the more multifaceted a project is, the bigger a team or company is, and the more money that’s being invested (especially in long-lead-time items like hardware). For a CEO, communicating the vision and strategy of the company to the team is most of your our job. Our job as investors is a little simpler: we need to help the CEO do the above. Not easy, but not a communication scaling challenge on the scale of what a CEO needs to do.

Part of getting alignment is having the right communication channels open. For me personally, I get a lot of that through chat/sms/signal. For the folks I work most closely with, that’s the most open bloodline of ideas in development. I think this is especially true for me since I’m most often not physically together with who I’m working with most of the time. So, as I think about it, I tend to stay most aligned with the people and projects where I have the best chat relationship. A challenge here, of course, is that everyone works in different ways. But that tends to work the best for me, and I think for the people I have the easiest time working with, for them too.

But whatever the method or mechanism, the key moment is recognizing that you’re out of alignment in the first place. This almost always feels like an “aha” moment — like, oh yeah, you’re right, we do feel out of alignment on that. It’s actually a good feeling, because its a signal to do some work.

So with that, back to work!

Water

I am in the Netherlands this week, catching up the Leap engineering team which is based here in Utrecht, and attending an IoT conference that Helium will be at in Amsterdam.

I have always loved it here, primarily because of the close relationship to the water. The Dutch have for centuries harnessed the water, both for commercial purposes (extensive canal network for shipping) and for defensive purposes (flooding out the attacking Romans).

At present, more than 15% of the country is below sea level, and only about 50% of the country is more than 1 meter above sea level (according to Wikipedia).

Amsterdam and Utrecht, where I have spent the most time, are intensely connected to the water. Canals weave between all the streets, most of which are also lined with houseboats (including the one I am staying in, thanks to Airbnb). Whereas walking around most other cities where what you notice are cars and trucks, here, you notice boats and bikes. It’s just incredibly beautiful.

I was at a dinner last week and got into a conversation about what is it, exactly, that makes the water connection so powerful. I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but when I am near or on the water, I feel different, better. Whether it’s a beach, lake, river, or canal: being on the water just feels freeing and awesome. Something about the flowing openness of it, I guess.

Of course, being close to the water is perilous. Venice, parts of the Midwest, large parts of Southeast Asia, are all flooding. A quarter of Manhattan was underwater after superstorm Sandy. Water is dangerous, and more is coming.

As far as the Dutch are concerned, I sincerely hope that they can figure out to protect the beautiful way of life they have established here, closely connected to the water. It is beautiful and unique, and I feel lucky to be able to experience it while it lasts.

Regulation and the Tech Industry

Azeem Azhar has a great post up about the brewing conversation about regulation and the tech industry.

There are two main points that stand out to me:

1) In digital systems, ML/AI and data network effects create feedback loops that enable the biggest companies to keep getting better, faster:

and, 2) Regulation favors large incumbents over smaller challengers:

“Regulation is complicated. Dealing with it means dealing with lawyers, hiring compliance people, changing your product roadmap, building new code. Regulation raises barriers to entry. The most regulated industries, finance and health, have seen the deep consolidation and weak flow of new entrants for decades. Regulation favours the large.”

This has created a conundrum. The instinct is to apply thorough and tough regulations to solve for #1. But the chances are, doing so will only reinforce the lead that the big companies have, as per #2.

A good example is the GDPR privacy regime in Europe. As reported in the WSJ (paywall), the advent of GDPR has increased the market power of the big ad players (Google and FB), because they have the best ability to capture user consents and to implement complex compliance procedures:

“GDPR has tended to hand power to the big platforms because they have the ability to collect and process the data,” says Mark Read, CEO of advertising giant WPP PLC. It has “entrenched the interests of the incumbent, and made it harder for smaller ad-tech companies, who ironically tend to be European.”

The solution, we have long argued at USV, is to give simply increase data portability and interoperability. In other words, don’t add burdensome regulation that startups can’t comply with. And don’t break up the tech companies, break up the data. And the simplest way to break up the data is to give users a right to access it in a programmable way. This is what the proposed ACCESS Act would do. I talked about this previously in the Adversarial Interoperability post, where I also showed this diagram:

What this shows, is that throughout the history of computing, what has broken the monopoly power of each era’s dominant firm is the emergence of an “open” technology on top. Open source systems like Linux and open standards like HTTP.

Today, the set of open standards that need to be cultivated are cryptonetworks, cryptocurrencies and blockchains. These are the standards that make it possible to re-architect the data economy, including giving more control to individuals and removing it from companies. By design, crypto protocols replace certain things that companies do with things that any group of computers can do, like this:

So, the ultimate point we have been making is that if you’re worried about the problems with the tech economy, one of the solution paths is through crypto.

That brings us back to regulation, and the current state of play around the regulation of cryptoassets globally. The situation we are in right now is such that within the US, there is a lot of regulatory uncertainty, and as a result, a slowing of the crypto economy. Whereas outside of the US (particularly in Asia), the crypto economy is booming — not just tokens, but exchanges, wallets, and other infrastructure.

Because of all this, I worry that not only do we have the potential to miss one of the most important solution vectors to some of the issues facing the tech industry, but at the same time we (meaning the United States) may also be missing the opportunity to play a leading role in what has the potential to become one of the next major economic and technical platforms.

Mutuality

7 years ago on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I wrote this post about the ideas in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Today I went back to the letter and re-read it, and a different section stood out at me, one that is really profound well beyond the context of civil rights:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King was a brilliant communicator, able to distill deep, profound ideas into memorable phrases.

Today on MLK’s birthday, I’m thinking about the overall lack of progress we have made as a society on the very issues he discussed in his letter, namely the structural segregation and dehumanization of black Americans and other marginalized groups. And also about the other issues facing the planet, like the climate crisis, that represent the same sense of mutuality.

Digital Bearer Assets

I spent time over the past few days with several entrepreneurs who are building crypto or “web 3” applications well outside of the financial space. One of the takeaways for me was of the important role that digital “bearer” assets will play in creating new experiences in web 3.

By bearer assets, I mean that you just show up with them, and they are respected sight unseen by whatever applications are expecting them. Every time I start thinking about this concept, I am reminded of the bearer bonds in the movie Die Hard:

For example: a device that has Helium data credits loaded on it can present itself anywhere on the Helium Network, and it will start working. No user account, no credit card, no contract — just show up holding the token and it will “just work“.

Or, take a subscription that is issued as an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain using the Unlock protocol. I show up with a compatible key and I can see the content. If I give (or sell) the key to you, you can see it.

Or, imagine decrypting content in a Zcash-based application using a Zcash viewing key. Anyone who has a key can see the content, whether it’s a blog post, an email, or a private message.

And of course, this is how it is with Bitcoin. He/she who has the keys (and can sign the transaction) has the assets. No account required.

I think of all of this as a shift from account-based experiences (web2) to digital signature based experiences (web3).

Digital signatures create bearer digital assets. They travel around freely, are transferable, and they are not tied to traditional web2 accounts. Rather than the account (as represented by a login, or a credit card, or a contract) have permissions, digital assets (secured by digital signatures and private keys) have permissions.

I believe that this will enable vastly superior user experiences over time.

Broadening Access

I spent the morning today at MTA headquarters, judging the “Accessibility” category of the NYC Transit Tech Lab competition, organized by the Partnership for NYC. Here is the view from the 20th floor of MTA HQ at Bowling Green:

Ostensibly, the theme of the day was accessibility in the sense of things that could improve the transit experience for people with disabilities and impairments of various kinds. This is, of course, a critical goal for every piece of public infrastructure, and is particularly important when it comes to transportation.

But what I quickly realized is that nearly every company that presented was not just increasing accessibility in that sense, but rather in a much broader sense — making the system more sensible, legible and usable for everyone.

Specifically, there was a single theme that came through from nearly every team: taking an invisible or analog signal, and making it digital. As simple as that.

I can’t link to the actual companies yet, as they haven’t been announced, but the kinds of signals that were being turned digital included: electrical signals emanating from infrastructure like elevators and escalators to monitor conditions & outages; voice announcements sent over the PA system; and contextual and wayfinding information from signs and other physical objects, such as buses and trains.

In each case, there is a valuable signal — valuable for people with disabilities yes, but really everyone — that is not at all captured digitally. And in each case, a system that manages to capture that signal and provide it in digital form. Once it’s digital, it can be used for anything: apps, alerts & notifications, analytics, compliance, etc. Once it’s digital, it’s accessible.

A major part of USV’s Thesis 3.0 is “Broadening Access” and this can come in many forms. What I realized today is that the simple act of capturing an analog or real-world signal and making it digital is a powerful act of broadening access in and of itself.

Form, Storm, Norm, Perform

I was out with some friends over the summer, one of whom is a college soccer coach, and we were talking about what it is that makes great teams great. I love talking to to coaches and people who have played for great coaches (just ask Ryan about how I always bug him for Coach K stories) — they always seem to have the best social hacks to get people to work well together.

College teams can be particularly difficult to manage because the tenure is short and there’s a lot of player turnover — so the team dynamic is constantly being reset. It is similar in startups, where teams reshape and reform as they grow.

My coach friend described the process as “Form, Storm, Norm, and Perform”. At the time, I took it to be another one of those witty and handy coach-isms, but, alas, it turns out this is an established group performance framework developed by psychology professor Bruce Tuckman back in 1965.

Anyway, I have been thinking about it a lot recently, as I see so many teams going through the various stages. For example, Plaid, which I mentioned last week, was acquired by Visa today for $5.3B — a great product and from what I hear a really positive and effective team culture. Clearly in the “Perform” phase :-)

What I especially like about the framework is that it acknowledges the importance of, or at least the temporal existence of, the “storm” phase. The storm phase can be hard when you’ve never been through it before, because it contains conflict and you’re not sure if it will end. But it does, and in the best situations, working through that is what enables you, and your team, to norm and perform.

Above all, what the framework reminds me of is that teamwork and success are about chemistry. Chemistry is hard to define, but it has a lot to do with trust. Trust in each other, trust in the vision, and trust in process. It is a beautiful thing when it comes together.

The Discuss on Twitter WordPress Plugin

Discuss on Twitter is a WordPress plugin that uses Twitter as the commenting system for your blog.

I’ve been developing it over the past few weeks along with Fred Wilson and Kirk Love as part of the launch of AVC 3.0 which went up yesterday. It’s currently live on this blog, as well as AVC and also USV.com.

The idea is pretty simple: whenever you publish a new post, the post is auto-tweeted to your account. Then, you get a “Discuss on Twitter” button on your post, which will prompt a reply to the auto-tweet, as well as a “View Discussions” button which will link to the Twitter thread.

Twitter is a natural place to discuss long-form content on the web, and moving blog commenting to Twitter can both engage people in a natural way and help expand distribution and reach.

I should pause here and note that the core WP/Twitter functionality is provided by the amazing WP to Twitter plugin created by Joe Dolson. Joe’s plugin does all the heavy lifting of authenticating with twitter and teeing up the tweets. It’s really configurable and nice. Thank you Joe.

This is alpha software (Version 0.3 to be precise), so we are still testing and tuning. Totally open to feedback, so please send any ideas on github or in the comments…. er, on Twitter

Enjoy!

Iterating from Scratch

A few years ago I wrote about one of my favorite product sayings: “Half, Not Half-Assed“, which comes from my favorite book on product development & teamwork, Getting Real (from the team behind Basecamp). I actually first got hooked into this thinking when I saw one of the Basecamp founders, Jason Fried, talk at a web design conference back in 2004 and it was a pivotal moment in my career (thanks Jason!).

I was reminded of that idea today, as I was working on a side project (an internal tool for USV). In this particular case, we had built a version of this tool a few years ago, but basically abandoned it because we could not build a good workflow around it. Looking back, the diagnosis on why was that it was overbuilt: too complicated, too much. And implemented in a way such that we just didn’t bother to keep up with it. In other words, half-assed, rather than “half”.

In version 2.0, I cut the scope and complexity down by 90%. Every new piece of detail went through the filter of “what’s the trade-off between nice to have and this will be sustainable to maintain.” But further, it was really easy to make design decisions because most of them had been made already before, and the key technical challenges had been worked through.

So it was very easy to build version 2 in a lighter, leaner, meaner way.

I am a big fan of iterating and taking things step by step. And in this particular case, it was that process that led the version 1 to be really interesting, but also a bit meandering, bloated and off target. Because the iterations were also an exploration.

This time, It felt good to do an iteration that started over, but from the place of wisdom of having built it all once before. Iterating from scratch. Very satisfying in its simplicity, and hopefully it will be on-target this time!

Automated Personal Finance

Today I’m finally switching off of Capital One because of their broken integration with Plaid. For those who don’t know, Plaid is a service that makes it easy for apps to connect to your bank account. So, if you want to do anything interesting that your bank doesn’t offer (spending analytics, smart transfers, etc) and you want to use a cool app to help you with that, you need Plaid to do it. Capital One has been notoriously bad with its Plaid integration, and people (including me) are frustrated.

I have been a long-time Capital One customer, from back when the online savings product was with ING bank. I originally joined for low fees and better than average interest rates. But I ended up staying because of how easy Capital One makes it to open and manage multiple accounts.

It has been a long journey for me to manage personal finances. For a long time, I had jobs that didn’t pay very well and managed to rack up a substantial amount of debt in my 20s. For the past 10 years I’ve managed that down, and a key tool for doing that has been breaking my financial life up into separate buckets, for various saving and spending goals, and automating as much as possible. This is a trick I learned from the amazing Ramit Sethi and his I Will Teach You to be Rich blog, which I read regularly back in the day.

The way I set it up is roughly this:

Paycheck comes in, gets split 3 ways (this is handled at the Justworks layer): 1/ primary spending account, 2/ overflow spending account, 3/ recurring bills & savings account. Each of these three accounts are at different institutions.

From there, all major bills (mortgage, insurance, car payment, utilities, childcare, etc) are paid from the recurring bills and savings account. And further, that account (until recently at Capital One) splits further into a bunch of smaller savings accounts for dedicated purposes (vacations, home improvements, certain kids activities, general savings, etc — I have about 8 of these I use regularly, and the transfers also happen automatically. I also auto-stash into my Stash account on a weekly basis.

The overflow spending account is for non-recurring large items (for example, some kids activity or a medical bill).

The regular spending is for things like groceries, eating out, random purchases. Essentially, what is left over after big things are handled.

It has been a lot of work to set all of this up in a way that makes sense. But it has been worth it, because now we have a system that keeps everything organized — not just in terms of budget categories and analysis, but in terms of actual accounts which we can spend out of and save towards.

And even so, using additional tools to help (like Personal Capital for overall analysis, or Zeta for couples-based tracking, or Astra for smart transfers) has not worked because of the broken Plaid integration with Capital One. So enough of that; goodbye Capital One.

The broader point is that financial analysis isn’t enough. Moving money is a core part of managing it. I don’t know how typical a setup mine is, but I have accounts at 5 different institutions just for basic spending and saving, not counting credit cards, investment accounts or crypto. I heard recently that the average consumer has accounts at 4+ financial institutions — I don’t believe this is a high-end phenomenon.

When I look out at the landscape of personal financial products, so many of them focus either on analyzing money or managing/moving it, but not both. Doing this in a holistic manner is difficult, especially with accounts across institutions. But it seems to me that it is the key to having an actually organized and manageable financial life.

Write, and Go Outside

I am feeling reflective at the beginning of this new year, as often happens to me. Today and yesterday especially so, as the kids are back to school but USV is still on break, so I have a few really free days to catch up, reflect and think.

I’m about to go out on a walk with Frannie, as we did yesterday. There is something so simple and helpful about just getting outside, getting some fresh air (especially in New England in the winter, but it really works anywhere), and moving the body a bit. Just the simple act of going outside is surprisingly powerful.

I am reminded this morning of our dear friend Sam who passed away nearly 13 years ago. Sam was a person who felt the world more than most people, both the beautiful and the painful. I remember from his service a story about the importance to him of the concept of “Write, and Go Outside.” I don’t remember perfectly, but I believe it was a teacher of his who gave him this mantra as a way to help when things felt tough. The idea has really stuck with me.

Write, and Go Outside feels especially important at a time in the world where it is so easy to “consume (read) and stay inside”. Both the “write” and “go outside” parts are about choosing a singular focus and a physical act, unplugged from other distractions. Both tend to make you feel good, for that reason and others.

Yesterday, I mentioned the Volt Planner, which I use every year to make long-, medium- and short-term plans. One of my goals for 2019 was to spend more time outside, in particular with my family. I have done a decent job of that and will step that up this year. One of my goals for 2020 is to focus more on writing, in all of its forms.

With both of those goals in mind, I’m hitting publish here and heading outside for walk.

Getting Right for What’s to Come

Fred and Albert just posted their annual posts on predictions and issues to tackle for the coming decade. Both are great, and thinking about all that we will need to do to in the coming decade is both inspiring and intimidating.

Before I can even think about those kinds of things and how to approach them, I need to look on the personal side and check in to make sure that I have as strong a foundation as possible, like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others:

Everyone has their own challenges and issues to work on, so here I will just note some resources that have been helpful to me, in no particular order:

  1. Getting professional help. I have written before that one of the breakthrough moments for me was when I realized I could seek and get help where I needed it. In my case, it was a great therapist and a great accountant. But the big idea is that it’s ok to get help. You deserve it.
  2. Dry January. For the past few years I have quit alcohol for the month of January and it always feels great. The holidays can be a bit much, and a lot of us consume more than we should anyway. Dry January is, at the very least, a good opportunity to explore the role of alcohol (or lack of it) in your life.
  3. This NYT piece on procrastination is great. I have always struggled with this, and I completely agree with the main idea here which is that procrastination is an emotional issue (avoiding unpleasant feelings, self doubt, etc) not a discipline or self control issue.
  4. James Clear and Atomic Habits. I’ve only skimmed James’ book Atomic Habits, but he’s great on twitter and seems spot-on to me with his analysis of how to create positive habits.
  5. Work Clean by Dan Charnas. In this book, Dan studies how great chefs manage their workspaces and apply those lessons to other forms of work.
  6. Alex Iskold‘s Self-care: 8 Tips for Founders to take care of themselves – great lessons here and Alex talks about this stuff from a place of real personal honesty and empathy.
  7. The Volt Planner by Kate Matsudaira. For the past 4 years I have used the Volt Planner, which guides you though yearly, monthly and weekly goal setting. I have found it to be supremely helpful in a world where there are a lot of things competing for your attention and it can be hard to focus.
  8. Brad Feld‘s mantra to Simply Begin Again – simple and really helpful.

Whatever issue you are tackling, I hope you can find the resources to help.

As I look out at the new year and the coming decade, I want to have all the energy and leverage I can to make good things happen, and that starts at home with building a strong foundation, whatever that means to you. A little better every day.

Adversarial Interoperability

As I make my way through the various predictions & reflections that accompany the new year, one stands out: the EFF’s 2019 Year In Review, entitled “Dodging Bullets on the Path to a Decentralized Future“. I have long been disappointed that there have seemed to be two separate and parallel conversations going on: the “traditional” digital rights / internet freedom community talking about “re-decentralizing the web” and the blockchain/crypto community working on the same thing. I like the EFF’s recent work because they are connecting the two conversations, and their year in review is a good place to start on that.

A key link in the EFF review is to Cory Doctorow’s work on Adversarial Interoperability, which studies the history of interoperability of technical systems and all of the commercial, legal and policy battles that haven ensued because of it.

In this post in the Adversarial Interoperability series, Cory details the different kinds of interoperability and the dynamics around them. His mantra is “Fix the Internet, not the Tech Companies” and I couldn’t agree more.

I believe, and we have said at USV many times, that driving interoperability is the best and most effective way to limit the power of big tech companies, and that in today’s environment we should focus on “breaking up the data, not the companies.”.

When I talk to regulators, lawmakers and policymakers, I often use this diagram (credit to Placeholder for the underlying graphic):

Which shows that from a historical perspective, these “open” or “interoperability” technologies have been the driver in breaking up each era’s dominant monopoly.

It’s the same today, and Cory’s and EFF’s excellent work on the subject adds a lot of depth to the analysis.

Slides: Crypto @ Harvard Kennedy School

Last week, as I have done for the last several years, I gave a guest lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The class is DPI-662: Digital Government: Technology, Policy, and Public Service Innovation taught by my old friend David Eaves and the topic in recent years has been on Cryptonetworks and Blockchains.

I am always amazed at the people in the class — incredible diversity of backgrounds from around the world. And as we have discussed crypto over the past few years, the conversation has gotten better and better — whereas a few years ago it was a curiosity it is clear that people are paying close attention.  

Here is the deck I used for the talk.  Like many of my presentations on crypto, it is geared towards newer technical audiences with a deeper policy slant.   Makes less sense without the narrative, but I have included speaker notes which you can see in the Google Slides version.

Enjoy!

The Butter Thesis

At USV, we talk a lot about our investment thesis.  The USV thesis is a set of ideas that has guided our investing over the years.  It is a tool we use to help ourselves know what to look for, and to help companies who fit into it to find us.

Despite all of the writing we have done on the thesis over the years, some parts of the it remain understood, but unwritten.  One of those is what I like to call “The Butter Thesis”.

“Butter” is the term we use to describe interactions & experiences that are just so smooth.  Rich, easy, delicious.  Hard to define formally, but you know it when you see it / feel it.

Butter can apply to dev tools, enterprise/b2b products, and consumer products.  

Classic examples of Dev Butter are the Stripe API and the Twilio API.  Tools that are just so simple and fun to use (and useful!) that you just can’t help build with them.  Or, the first time you install Cloudflare and your site just gets fast and the DDOS just stops.  OMG Firebase. Takes my breath away.  Or before that, Ruby on Rails and jQuery.  The category-defining tools of each era of development have succeeded in large part because of their Buttery-ness.

B2B Butter is Airtable and Slack (and really, Google Docs, though that’s less exciting somehow).  Or in narrower vertical, Splice.  Or, in a hidden horizontal, Carta.  Tools that make working together so so much easier — like, hard to imagine what it was like before they existed.

On the consumer side, Butter means end-user experiences that are frictionless and joyful.  For example, I recently went to China and was blown away by the QR Code experience — straight butter wherever you go, linking the real world to the online world.  Duolingo is Butter for Learning.  Nurx is Butter for Health.  Coinbase is Butter for Crypto.  Amazon Prime is Butter for e-Commerce.

Building for butter means understanding that every step of the experience can be honed, smoothed and improved, to the point that it’s so good you just can’t take it.  Butter is deceptively simple. A single ingredient that yet does so much. 

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!  Maybe this is obvious and isn’t that deep. But it is hard to pull off, and truly extraordinary when it is accomplished.

CoinAlts Chicago: Fireside Chat w Sam McIngvale of Coinbase Custody

A few weeks ago at the CoinAlts conference in Chicago, I did a fireside chat with Sam McIngvale, CEO of Coinbase Custody.  CoinAlts is a conference focused mostly on the institutional infrastructure around crypto assets — legal, accounting, custody, etc.  So we started out talking about the evolving role of custody in the crypto markets, and also talked generally about what we’re excited about in the next few years.  It was a lot of fun.  Here it is:

Saying Sorry

As I turned to write this, I was in the middle of reviewing a document a friend had asked me to look at a little while ago. In somewhat typical fashion, I had not done it right away, and had basically forgotten about it until he pinged me again, and even then I didn’t get to it right away.  

I feel terrible about that, and as I reflect on things as part of Yom Kippur today, I realize that one of the things I feel the worst about over the past year is being a bad communicator. I have let things drop and haven’t been responsive.  At the end of the day, it’s a matter of respect and I have not done a good enough job.

So for the many of you out there (including readers of this blog — notice no new posts for about 5 months…) who I’ve done this to, I am sorry. I will do better.

How to Read a Pitch

Yesterday, we had a team offsite at USV, which included a “presentation party” where a bunch of us gave 3-minute presentations on a variety of topics. It was actually a perfect window into everyone’s personality — Andy gleaned lessons about venture capital from music lyrics (of course), Albert talked about beauty in math focusing on the Fibonacci sequence, Bethany talked about her early entrepreneurial adventures with Beanie Babies, Gillian walked us through the fun things you can find in a proxy statement, Matt introduced us to Kayfabe.  That’s just a few, but suffice to say they were all great, and were totally on-brand with everyone’s personalities.

Not surprisingly, I decided to talk about the beauty I see in Baseball, focusing on just one small thing: the way the batter reads the spin on an incoming pitch.  Here it is — enjoy (I recommend holding a baseball while you watch, if you have one):

Building a culture of success

My son played in a baseball tournament this weekend. His team did well, and finished as the runner-up.  The team that beat them in the finals played really well, but more importantly, it was obvious that they had a strong culture of success.

From the moment they walked on the field, they had a noticeable “bounce”. – they were literally bouncing around with energy and excitement. When they started warming up, it wasn’t haphazard and sloppy, but rather organized, energetic, and purposeful.   It was clear that they had a warm-up routine designed to instill focus.  It was led by the kids themselves.  They had a huddle before every inning at-bat ending with a cheer of “hit!” and boy did they hit the ball well (better than any team I’ve seen all season).  They cheered every kid on in a major way, and bounced in celebration when they scored.  When they won, they posed for a team photo and the coach said “ok, time for your first Legends’ point” and they pointed to the camera in a victory celebration (the club was called the Legends) — teaching the kids that not only were they part of a long-term culture of winning, but that this was just their first step on their path.  Even when they were sitting together before the game eating lunch, they had togetherness and winning baseball in their eyes.  They were having fun the whole time, and it was clear that at every step of the way, the club’s culture was behind it.

I looked through at the club website, and it became clear that what I witnessed was not a one-off moment, but part of a bigger culture.  This club has a practice facility where they do game situation indoor practice all winter long  (with trophies conspicuously mounted).  I saw pictures on the website of older kids doing the same pre-game drills in that facility, with the same intensity.   They have camps, and dinners, and skills clinics.  I can just imagine the youngest members of the club (my son’s age) watching the bigger kids do the drills, and the chants, and the movements & motions.  

Having coached baseball for 10 seasons now (5 years x 2 seasons per year), and having played high school ball on an pretty good team and little league ball on a very good travel team (1989 NYC Federal League champions, 46-5 record — yes, I am still proud of that), I am particularly attuned to the dynamics of winning (and less winning) teams.  

And now, working in the startup / VC world, I see from the inside what winning (and less winning) teams look like.  USV has built a culture of success over the last 15 years, which I am hell bent on carrying forward to the next generation.  

Success is one part ability/skills and one part culture. The skills are the raw material and the culture is what makes it great. So what makes for a culture of success?

This is material for a series of posts rather than just one, but I’ll focus on a few observations & memories here:

1/ Legend & lore — winning begets winning, especially in generational enterprises like companies and sports clubs (just look at the Yankees, or Duke Basketball).  The younger generation needs to look up to the older one and learn what success looks like and how to model it. 

2/ Body language — so much of success is about feeling poised and energized.  Think “power pose”.  The team this weekend had it.

3/ Structure — complex tasks like building a company or hitting a baseball need to be broken down into pieces so they can be understood and mastered. Figuring out how to do this in the right way is the magic of coaching, and it’s not easy.  How can you take an amorphous goal and break it into understandable pieces, ideally explainable with metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes?

4/ Fun — this seems silly but it’s really important. Teams succeed when they are having fun, and they have fun when they succeed.  

That is it for now. I’m heading into my week energized and inspired.