Karen Nyberg, a female astronaut, landed back on earth today after 6 months in space. I saw the news with photos of her reuniting with her preschool aged son Jack. I don’t know why, but the story really affected me. I can’t imagine saying yes to a ride on a rocketship with the knowledge that survival rates are low and I might be killed leaving behind 2 small children. But I can’t imagine saying no to the opportunity either. I mean, it’s a ROCKETSHIP! I imagine the decision must have been excruciating for her, and all I can say is Karen, today, you’re my hero.
I completely understand why personalization is necessary in today’s tech world. Because there is just too much content, we become overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, and we shut down. So the sites that have figured out how to do personalization well are crushing it with higher engagement metrics.
But there’s a dark side to personalization. Personalization runs the risk of making us more close-minded simply because we’re not exposed to things outside of where we might first click. Because we’re exposed to the same types of content over and over again, we begin to believe that’s the way the whole world is. We can get bored of it, and even tune it out completely.
An interesting analogy is what’s happened in retail shopping. Go to any shopping area and you’ll see identical stores – Banana Republic, Old Navy, The Gap, Nike, Macys, Bed Bath & Beyond, even the top brands like Michael Kors, …..Wherever you go, it’s all the same. And they feel like they carry the exact same stuff, they’re all inspired by the same designers that season, so there isn’t a ton of variety. Lots of options, but very little variety. And I hate shopping because of it. Its uninspiring to me.
But I was in London recently just exploring the city and was fascinated by all the cute little stores carrying unique items I’ve never seen before. I fell in love with stuff I wouldn’t call ‘my style’, mostly because it was so new to me that it was exciting. And the times I’ve traveled outside of western culture, I really fall in love. In fact, my favorite trip on memory was to Bolivia where I witnessed a dying culture of people who live on floating rafts, built of reeds. It was beautiful and amazing because it was unique and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I believe the single biggest downside of globalization is the loss of that cultural uniqueness.
I don’t know about you, but I like being exposed to content, clothing, ideas, books, food, people, religions, (insert whatever noun you want) that is outside of my immediate circle of ‘interest’. It helps me discover things I didn’t know I would like. It helps prevent tunnel vision. It helps me be empathetic and more worldly and more grounded. It helps me be a better mother/wife/investor/managing director. It helps me think bigger.
So tech world – I get why you personalize things for me, but I’d really like some variety too. In fact, I’d love to see an exploration area on your site where I can get exposure to the complete opposite of what you would otherwise show me. I might just learn something.
My husband Mark and I have fundamentally and radically different taste in music. He listens to a lot of jam bands, like Widespread Panic and the Dead. I’ve been to a lot of the Widespread Panic shows because many of our friends love the music as well, and the scene is a complete blast. But when being honest, it’s pretty much the last music on the planet I’d chose to hear if given options. In fact, I’d rather listen to silence than that type of music. It’s a source of tension in our marriage because I’ve resorted to snide remarks about it. (yes, not good, I know).
One day, rightfully so, he had enough of my nasty comments. And he said to me something like “It’s not that the band sucks or that the music is shit. Its that YOU don’t like the music – so quit projecting your opinion as fact.” His comment has stuck with me (and is yet another example of why he’s such an amazing human being), and I began to realize how often I’ve taken my perspective and generalize it to the rest of the world. Its more often than I’d like to admit, so I’ve been actively working on rephrasing how I say things to more accurately reflect that something is my opinion rather than a widely-held truth. It’s true at Techstars as well, we tell mentors to state things as opinions, to share with teams their experiences, rather than stating perspectives as fact. And we warn teams to beware of the person who states their opinion as fact.
Today, I’m reading Conscious Business and the author put a term to this patten. He calls it ontological arrogance, and its the belief that your perspective is privileged, that yours is the only true way to interpret a situation. He goes on to use the example of his daughter, that she says she won’t eat broccoli because its yukky. But the real truth is that she calls broccoli yukky because she doesn’t like it.
I find this fascinating, and since I’ve discovered there’s a term for it, I’ve noticed how often it happens outside of my own actions. Nearly daily, if not hourly, someone I interact with does this.
I’m curious as to all the ways ontological arrogance is holding us back, and holding me back. Off the top of my head, I can tell you it’s probably a huge driver in startups as they seek product/market fit. A team has a hard time getting out of their own head (hence why customer development methodology has really taken off). I know it happens in board meetings, I know it happens with investors. I’d argue that not being able to see other people’s perspectives is a major factor in entrepreneurial and investor success.
So today, I’m making a public commitment to massively reduce my ontological arrogance. I’ve started by simply rephrasing how I talk In an effort to affect how I think. Just by saying “my opinion is xxxx” will help (I hope). But I need your help too. If you catch me doing it, highlight it for me.
Maybe we’ll all be a little more successful for it.
I’ve had this theory running around in my head for a while now, and I’ve finally broken down and written a blog post about it. It’s called the Confidence Coefficient and what that means for your startup, and anything else you feel like tackling in your life.
The notion is around how your confidence levels can impact your success.
Read about the Confidence Coefficient here – a guest post I recently did for UC Berkeley.
I’d love to know your thoughts and whether you agree or not.
I’ve been pulled into a lot of conversations recently around the fundability of women and getting more women involved in tech and entrepreneurship. Its a topic that’s received a lot of media attention given Marissa’s appointment to Yahoo as CEO while she’s pregnant. I keep getting asked these questions around “Do women make for good CEOs” and “Are women good investments” and “Can a woman really have a family and be an entrepreneur?”
I thought I’d spend a little brain cycles here talking about my thoughts on this. My disclaimer is that I’m talking about gross generalizations based mostly on my empirical experience working with and investing in both men and women, and also pulling from my own experience as a female, with 2 small children (11 months and 2.5 years!). There are exceptions to every generalization.
First of all, a great study called Women at the Wheel came out showing that having women in C level roles or on your Board of Directors make for more profitable companies and better returns for investors. I love this study, because if anything is going to move the needle for women, it’s this. Show the industry how ANYTHING positively impacts the bottom line, and needles will be moved. The results of this study aren’t surprising to me. There are many reasons I think women make great executives and entrepreneurs. They include:
- Women tent to be less risk tolerant than men. They’ll hedge their bets, create Plans B and C, thus will generally be more prepared when things go wrong. They’ll step cautiously before making a risky decision and weigh all the options, instead of just charging head-long into it. So having a mix of men and women making decisions is a great idea – it allows for a more robust plan of attack.
- As a Part B to “women are less risk tolerant” – that means they’re more conservative. More conservative with their financial projections, more conservative with performance projections. This leads to many more pleasant surprises when things are going well, and fewer disappointments when they aren’t.
- Women tend to be less afraid to ask for help and openly discuss their limitations. I love this approach because if things are going wrong, or you suck at something, and I don’t know about it, I can’t help you fix it. Asking for help and being openly honest about your limitations means stronger companies.
- Women tend to be monster executors and are often more capable of multi-tasking. I think this is critical to a CEO skill set. I’d argue that women who have kids are particularly well suited for this role. If you have kids, you know how to keep multiple balls in the air simultaneously with a watchful eye on all of them, know how to get stuff done quickly and efficiently, and know how to put out fires and remain calm when the shit hits the fan. As a mom, it happens daily, no – hourly.
- Because they are generally less ego driven, they’re more about boosting the morale of their team and giving credit to them for things. I hear “we” much more often than I hear “I”. They tend to care deeply about their teams and work really hard to ensure their happiness.
- Interestingly, they tend to undervalue their contributions and work. This is good news/bad news. Good news for the investor b/c they won’t have the same salary demands, won’t ask for as high of company valuations, and won’t negotiate as hard. Investors can get more of the company for less money which means higher returns. This is clearly bad though for the woman, a weakness we all have to work on.
Some of the negatives about women CEOs
- Women have babies and are chemically/hormonally oriented around this. My husband stays at home with our 2 kids. And when our kids were born, my mom basically lived with us to help care for the infants while I worked. I figured I wouldn’t ever worry about them because I pretty much had it as good as it gets. But that wasn’t true. Women are chemically tied to their children. When they’re sick or sad, I’m STILL the first one to call the doctor and sit by their side and fret about medicines and dosage and temperatures and everything else. My husband doesn’t worry about it – he says “yep, they’re sick!” While I’m going through every disease and symptom and possibility in my head and calling the doctor 15 times. I’ll put everything, EVERYTHING on hold when my kids aren’t well, physically or emotionally. But flexible workplaces with teams to compensate for family needs don’t just benefit women with kids, they benefit the men too and make for stronger families at home. And the benefits of having a women CEO far outweigh this one challenge. This is what it is. Companies need to just embrace it.
- Because women are generally more conservative, they tend to think smaller. I know lots of men that dreamed of being a superhero and saving the world (or destroying it) when they were children. Most girls don’t think that way. But having an amazing Board of Directors in place can counteract this.
- I think women have a harder time letting a bad apple in the company go. They’ll work really hard to make things right for that person at the expense of the company. Sometimes, you just need to fire the bad apple and move on.
- I think generally women aren’t great negotiators. We think that the world is a just and fair place, that we get what we deserve. We won’t fight hard for salaries because we think we’re being paid what we deserve. I heard a great analogy to this – that women are compensated for their performance and men are compensated for their potential. If this is true, I don’t fault men for this – its women’s fault b/c we don’t fight for it.
- We tend to be more apologetic, more self-conscious, and less risky than our male counterparts.
Alrighty then, now that I’ve convinced you to put more women in executive and board seats of your company, the key becomes HOW.
- First of all, support sport programs for young girls. Did you know that 80% of all women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were athletes? I LOVE this statistic. I don’t know if its because they have more confidence or are more competitive or are used to performance/working hard/kicking ass… but who cares. Let’s help create a pipeline of strong young girls who grow up to be capable, strong women. Added bonus is that they’re probably less susceptible to violence at home, early pregnancies, and all the other things that can create a vicious cycle.
- Secondly, support STEM and specifically girls in STEM programs. Along these lines – support NCWIT. It’s a great national program based out of Boulder that works across the country to increase girls involvement in STEM type activities.
- Give a woman a chance, but be supportive of her there. Hire her as CEO even if she doesn’t have CEO experience. Put her on the Board even if she doesn’t have board experience. Put resources around her to ensure her success.
- Give a ton of visibility to those women who are in the executive roles in your organization. They make great role models for other women and will be a great example for other companies that don’t have a lot of women represented. Highlight them in blog posts and newspaper/magazine articles and TV shows, invite them to be keynote speakers. Most women I know aren’t great self-promoters, so they won’t do this naturally on their own.
- Create a culture of flexibility in the workplace to ensure women that are also moms are comfortable taking executive rolls. A woman shouldn’t have to decide between a title and her kids.
- Hire women that have been out of the workforce for a while b/c they’ve been raising kids. Train them. Put resources into them and support them. It isn’t a negative that their last “job” was 10 years ago. I’ve hired 4 women in my life that had been out of the workforce for between 5-10 years. They were, hands down, some of the best hires I ever made. They were monster executors, humble, eager to learn and prove themselves, amazing multi-taskers, could handle crisis with ease, didn’t have ego…. They were all rising stars. And I’d be willing to bet that raising kids is much harder than whatever job you’re hiring them for.
- Be a mentor to an awesome woman. Women need encouragement and support, from both men AND women. So support your local badass lady and help get her to the top.
In Q1 of this year, I had the pleasure of running TechStars Cloud alongside Jason Seats. It was a crazy time in my life, I was recuriting and going through applications for TechStars Boulder, I temporarily moved my whole family to Texas for the Cloud program, and I had a new baby just barely a month old.
I was really there just to be a resource for Jason as he ran his first program – making sure he avoided the same mistakes we all made our first time through. I quickly realized that not only did Jason not need my help, but he was going to fast outpace me as a Managing Director. Let me tell you why Jason makes such an amazing TechStars Managing Director, and how if I were an entrepreneur, I’d take my company through the Cloud program.
- Jason’s an entrepreneur himself with a successful exit under his belt. He’s fought the battle. He 100% knows what you’re going through.
- Jason’s a deep thinker. (Contrast this to me. I can think deeply only if you get my attention long enough for me to submerge into your problem). He thinks about everything. He looks at it from multiple angles. He comes up with multiple hypothesis. He frequently argues with himself until he comes up with a position that he thinks is the right one. I LOVE this approach in entrepreneurship because he purposefully looks around at all the data and thinks critically before making a recommendation.
- He dives in, all the way. He’ll be in cell ZZ4892 of your spreadsheet if you let him. He’ll interview hires with you if you want. He’ll sit on customer calls. He doesn’t just roll up his sleeves, he puts on the freaking dry suit and gets all the way in. It’s awesome and inspiring to watch, and his teams love him for it.
- He wears his emotions on his sleeve. So if he’s not happy with you, you’ll know it. If he’s proud, you’ll know it. You never have to worry about him “grinfucking” you.
- He’ll calls them like he sees them. This is sort of the same thing as #4. You can rest assured that he’s being 100% honest with you, at all times, about everything.
- He’s not sympathetic, he’s empathetic. He’ll feel your pain right along with you.
- He has the respect of everyone he works with. EVERYONE. When we were interviewing him for the position, I tried hard to find someone who would say something negative about him, or say what his weaknesses were. (I had basically already decided he was our guy, I just wanted to make sure we could build in support around his weaknesses). I talked to probably 15 people, even ones he didn’t know I was talking with, and not one person said anything bad about him. And it’s true. I have zero bad things to say about the guy. Why is this important? Because when he picks up the phone to call an investor/mentor/customer/whatever on your behalf, people will answer the phone.
- He’s a monster executor. This actually surprised me about him. Usually the thinker guys aren’t the executor guys, but he is.
- He’s uber-responsive. I don’t think he ever has more than 3 emails in his inbox. It stresses him out to see that little red number there. Don’t believe me? Send him an email and test it. I bet he responds within minutes.
- He wrangled mentors like the best of us. He’s great at getting the mentors bought in, participating, and deeply engaged. Just awesome.
- He’s a software engineer. He speaks your language and can help think through architecture, scaling, and more.
- He’s instinct and gut on things is spot on, even on the business side.
- He talks in metaphors. I love this quality. It’s hilarious and awesome and creative. I miss the daily metaphor from Jason.
Jason is going to kill me when he reads this. But this isn’t to flatter Jason. This is to spread a little of the Jason magic to entrepreneurs that aren’t sure the Cloud program is the right one for them. I bet that it’s the best thing you ever do for your startup. Hurry – early application deadline is October 14th, with the final deadline being November 4th. Apply now!
I’ll be in the San Fran area next week for a blur 2 days.
Seems like I’m doing a ton of judging recently (see most recent post on StartupWeekend EDU). I like judging, it’s fun and easy. But one thing I don’t like about it is that I don’t get to spend a lot of time getting to know the teams. That’s the problem with a pitch
competition, we’re focusing exclusively on the viability of the idea. But as you know from earlier rants, I think the likelihood of success is tied to team by about 90%.
However, I’m looking forward to both events. They both have great speaker lineups and look to be full of great content. If you’re at either one, come say hi!
I was a judge at Startup Weekend EDU this weekend – for those that don’t know, its a fun, frantic, sleepless event that last 54 hours where teams try to launch a startup. This particular one focused on the education space, something that’s been getting more and more of my attention recently.
So let me start with some background info. I don’t know too many people who aren’t supportive of education, but I don’t know one person who thinks the current state of affairs with education is acceptable.
Soap Box – If it were me, I’d be paying teachers $100+K a year, no tenures, and radically bonusing teachers and principals with highly performing schools. I’d make the requirements to be a teacher pretty damn high. I’d radically reduce overhead expenses (read Board of Educations and multiple layers of management). I’d support the voucher system so parents can take their kid ANYWHERE. Let the bad schools die off. I would force 100% transparency in dollars spent, testings, curriculums, and hold people accountable for them. And I’d get rid of the unions. At the bottom line, everything, EVERYTHING is riding on the education of our youth. Our government, the arts, roads, economics, fresh water supply, whatever – you name it. They’ll be the ones tasked with all of these items in a decade or two, and we should be giving them all the resources to do it better than us. It is absolutely ludicrous that we have freshly paved roads but our kids education is below par, dare I say abysmal. End soapbox.
Okay, but clearly everyone wants to see education improve, but its really difficult to do so. We can’t leave it to the beaurocracy to make the improvements, they move too slowly and their incentives aren’t aligned with success. I think its the teachers and entrepreneurs who can introduce innovation. Sites like Kahn Academy are a great example of this. Therefore, I’m hugely in support of all aspects of entrepreneurship and education – thus the judging of Startup Weekend EDU.
Out of 6 pitches, I saw 4 that I thought could move the needle in the education space. Wow. FOUR of SIX. They had a long way to go and most of them were just at the concept phase, but that’s impressive. That’s only one startup weekend (there are dozens), and only one effort targeting innovation in education (I’m sure there are hundreds). I can feel the ground swell with energy in this space. It’s coming.
Massive props to the organizers of StartupWeekendEDU – they volunteer to do this, and it was a great event. Especially Dr. Janet Corral, she was warm, welcoming, and a force to be reckoned with (I’m sure you all were, I just got to know her the best!)
My hat goes off to all entrepreneurs and teachers and creative thinkers who are trying to solve the problems in education. Carry on, and change the world.
Tomorrow is day 1 for TechStars Boulder 2012, and I’m sitting here this evening putting together the orientation presentation. My final slide is called the TechStars Survival Guide, and it consists of only a few bullet points. It strikes me as I finished the slide that they’re not just bullet points to survive TechStars, but on how to radically increase your chances in any startup. So let me share them with you.
1. Be intellectually honest. It basically means you have to know yourself, know what you’re good at and what you suck at. By identifying what you suck at – you can easily surround yourself with those who have strengths in your areas of weakness. Being intellectually honest means being open to feedback, even when that feedback is negative. I’m a firm believer that successful entrepreneurs leverage their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses by hiring the right people.
2. Deep engagement with mentors. This is true even for startups not associated with an accelerator like TechStars. Find mentors, experienced entrepreneurs and leaders who have knowledge in what you’re doing. By engaging with mentors, you can avoid easy-to-make mistakes. But the key is to engage with mentors deeply. Empirical observations suggest that founders who are good at this tend to do much better with their companies than founders who don’t.
3. Find the truth. Startups are risky business. But if you want to radically decrease the chances of failure, engage in lean startup methodologies. It isn’t about your idea anymore, it’s about what customers are willing to pay for. I don’t care how good your hunch is, get to the truth by getting feedback from customers early and often.
4. Prototype rapidly (or my favorite – code badass shit). Don’t spend months and months building. Know what a minimum viable product is, build it fast, and get it out there to start generating feedback. This will help you get to the truth more quickly.
5. Synthesize data & decide quickly. Many TechStars founders get analysis paralysis as they try to synthesize the sheer volume of feedback they get. Get data, decide, act. If you’re wrong, fine, just fix it. If you struggle to decide, you waste valuable time and it becomes harder to fix a wrong decision (notice I didn’t say bad decision).
6. Develop a rhythm. Almost everything we do can benefit from a rhythm. (I’m still learning this trick). Everything from code releases, to blogging/tweeting, to email updates to mentors, to staff meetings. Developing a rhythm will keep you in sync and ensure you don’t forget important stuff.
7. Do the right stuff, fast. We’ve all heard the analogy of the jar filled with the big rocks. Is it full? Of course. But then you add smaller pebbles. Now its full? Not quite, you can still add sand. Finally, it’s full… until you pour in water. The key here is to know the difference between busyness and productivity. Keep your eye on the big rocks – moving those items forward. Don’t let the minutiae bog you down (I personally struggle with this one).
Feel free to add tips if you think I’m missing something.
Mother’s Day is Sunday, and unforuntately I won’t be spending it with my mom. I never know what to get her either, she’s the hardest person to shop for. It was fortuitous that in the process of trying to figure out what to get my mom, I read Brad Feld’s blogpost about paying it forward and helping to alleviate the medical bills of someone you’ve never met.
It really struck a chord with me. We all need help at some point in our lives, and medical bills are one of the scariest of the threats. It’s not about the medical bills themselves, but if you have a real illness on your hand, it can be lost wages, travel, childcare, medications… all the things that insurance doesn’t cover. And that’s terrifying.
So this year, in honor of my mom, the most generous person I know, I’m donating money to Justin, a guy from TX who discovered he has testicular cancer. My mom would help him if she could. I think she’d rather give someone a gift like this than get flowers anyway.
If you aren’t sure what to get your mom this year, try GiveForward. Find a person to help, and just help.
Thanks Mom for teaching me to be a good person!