Monthly Archives: December 2006

Book Review: Bonfire of the Vanities

What can I say about Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe?

Bonfire is considered by many people to be Wolfe’s best book and one of the best novels ever written. Even though I missed the 80’s, I was still captivated by his portrayal of New York Wall Street and racial tension and courtroom drama. A masterpiece.

According to Richard Ben Cramer in New New Journalism by Robert Boynton, Wolfe doesn’t produce masterpieces without trying:

I used to read Wolfe and think, "Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!" Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, "God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all."

Ah, we non-geniuses can take heart. Hard work does count for something. It even matters to Tom Wolfe.

I'm Moving to Boulder, CO for Q1 2007

On January 2nd I’ll be moving to Boulder for three months to work for the Boulder-based gang of Mobius Venture Capital, an early-stage venture capital fund which invests in leading technology companies.

If you’ve been following the blizzard news, you’re probably saying to yourself, "Ben, you must have balls the size of coconuts to be moving to Colorado now." The answer is: I do.

How did this all come to be? My first "real" business meeting several years ago was with Greg Prow, then COO & Managing Director at Mobius, now CEO of Planitax. I didn’t quite realize my good fortune: my first business meeting would take place in the plush offices of a billion dollar fund in Silicon Valley! My meeting with Greg was surreal and his parting words enduring ("If anyone tells you to stop on your journey, don’t listen to them").

Later, Greg introduced me to his partner Brad Feld who ran Mobius’ Boulder office. Greg told me Brad was "just like me." Among other things, he started his first company in high school.

After I met with Brad for the first time in 2003, Greg said, "You should try to get to know Brad. I mean it. It won’t be easy with him in Colorado, but really try." I remember nodding and then writing at the top of my notebook: "Feld".

And it wasn’t easy. Brad generously introduced me to a bunch of interesting Bay Area people, but I still didn’t get to know him. Several times we planned one-on-one meetings when he was in the Bay Area, and he always canceled on me last minute.

It was only when we both started blogging around June 2004 that we could really get to know each other. Over the course of the next few years, through emails, occasional dinners, and lots of blogging, we’ve formed a nice friendship and he’s become a wonderful mentor and inspiration for me. I came to know some of his CEOs, his partner Seth, his wife Amy, and still other members of his seemingly infinite circle of influence.

I stopped in Boulder on my way back from Chicago last spring and I crashed at his place. We talked about my gap year. I told him that in addition to my active board directorship at Comcate, international travel, and writing, I wanted to do "something different". He invited me to hang in Boulder for a few months and help the Mobius gang, see a lot of companies and people, lay soft roots in Boulder, and learn a bit about the VC side of the business (I’ve only been an in-the-trenches entrepreneur). I gave it some thought while I trekked through Europe. It didn’t take long to figure out it’d be an amazing opportunity culturally (a city other than San Francisco), professionally (smart entrepreneurs and VCs looking to create cool companies), and personally (live on my own / wash clothes / cook).

So what will I be doing in Boulder? I guess the most accurate role description would be "entrepreneur-at-large" — I’ll be tackling a bunch of odds and ends related to Mobius portfolio companies and internal projects. I’ll also engage in broader Colorado entrepreneurial life. I will be full-time with them, although I will still have my hand in a variety of side projects.

I’m a big believer in the idea, "Surround yourself with high quality people and through osmosis their excellence will rub off on you." After Chuck Norris or Jack Bauer, I couldn’t think of a better gang to hang around. Brad, Jason, Seth, Ryan, and Chris — I look forward to the next quarter! Here’s to staying warm!

How Do You Fall Upwards?

Lee Siegel‘s new book is called Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of Imagination. I don’t think I’m going to read the book because it seems to contain a lot of high-powered lit crit, which ain’t exactly my cup of tea, but I think the title is genius. Falling upwards.

Imagination is undoubtedly important in leading a successful life. But it’s scarce. Scarce to the point that I continue to believe if you pay $15 for a book that gives you just one solid, imaginative idea, you got a helluva deal.

So how do you fall upwards? How can you nurture the imaginative instinct?

  • Cultivate the naive mind. Look at an issue as if it was your first exposure to it, Kai Chang told me. When a company hires a new CEO, she probably doesn’t know a lot about the job, the company, and the industry. So most of her knee-jerk ideas will be off kilter. But there will be some gems, too, simply because her naiveté prompts her to challenge assumptions everyone else considered Truth. Try to re-create this mindset.
  • Spend time around children. Childly wisdom can be enlightening. Children have the courage to dream with their eyes open, as my friend Andy puts it.
  • Don’t let life beat imagination out of you. It’s a tough fight — with the first lick of formal schooling society beats us over the head shouting one word: conform. While some conformity is necessary, most of us go overboard.

As Picasso once said, all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. To stay competitive, it seems to me, all knowledge workers will have to be artists in their own way.

It doesn’t take imagniation to work at a call center. It does take imagination to be an entrepreneur.

My Lecture Will Contain One Lie

Kai Chang mentioned this for the third time over noodles yesterday, so I’m glad he finally blogged this brilliant technique of one of his college professors:

“Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

At the end of each class the students anxiously reviewed their lecture notes to see if they could spot the lie.

I can’t think of a better way to impart the life lesson: “Think critically. Even if it comes from an expert”.

Quote of the Day – Anyone Can Be Angry

"Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy." – Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

Introduction to Social Network Methods

I’m fascinated by social network theory. It’s fun to map the relationships of individual actors within a broader social web.

While most of us may think of network theory in the context of internet social networks and our own relationship-building efforts (weak ties vs. strong ties, etc), I fondly recall a moment in my high school psychology class where I insanely suggested we map out the cliques in the senior class. A couple minutes later the black girl in the class (who volunteered information about the "minority group") was going at it with the "beautiful blond," one other girl was close to tears, the jocks were all laughing, and soon enough the teacher ended the ill-fated exercise. Ah, high school, our first exposure to social networks, connectors, and orphans.

Anyway, if you want to get an academic introduction to social network theory, check out this free online textbook by a UC Riverside professor. I recommend reading the first chapter to get an overview of how the field operates.

(Hat tip: del.icio.us/chrisyeh)

Common Goals Bring Together Uncommon People

That was what my old teacher John Durand told me once while we were hiking through Yosemite National Park.

It crystallizes why management / leadership is so interesting: how do you bring together a bunch of different people and unite them around common objectives?

But life’s most beautiful moments don’t always happen in formal business. Yesterday, for example, I decended on In-n-Out Burger in Daly City, a town just south of San Francisco. I can safely say I haven’t been in a place as diverse since London’s Heathrow Airport (which is probably the most diverse location in the world).

In-n-Out was filled with old grandmas and babies, black skin and white skin (and everything in-between), tall and short, grotesquely obese and anorexic. English was just one of several languages being spoken. Rich businessmen waited in the ketchup line behind gangstas.

The common goal for all these people was the perfect burger (preferably “animal style,” with fries and a vanilla milkshake on the side). So long as you kept this in mind, you couldn’t care less what the person next to you looked like.

I think back to this idea anytime I’m trying to lead people who seem close to sparring. Articulate the common goals, and people tend to rally together. Sometimes it can be as simple as, “Look, we’re all trying to get out of here as quickly as possible, so let’s work together.” Or: “Let’s not forget our interests are fundamentally aligned. You win, I win, you lose, I lose.”

Good leaders, it seems to me, assemble a stunningly diverse team, and then work hard to promote commonalities.

Book Review: Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis

Founding Brothers, the Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the key figures of the American revolutionary period, is a magical book, and highly recommended.

Start-up entrepreneurs who are queasy about picking up a book on U.S. history might consider this: America is the world’s most successful start-up. It took a stellar management team with a compelling vision to turn an idea into a start-up into a large organization which has become the most powerful in the world.

Ellis illuminates the personalities of the great men — Washington, Jefferson, Adams, etc. It boggles the mind to think that so many extraordinary minds were together at the same time. I feel like I know each of them a little. I’ll have to check out the full biographies to get an even deeper sense of their minds and hearts.

Although Ellis was dealing with some of the most gifted rhetoricians of history, his own writing contains gems, too. It was fun to read: "Washington wanted to carve out a middle course, and do so in a moderate tone, that together pushed his most ardent critics to the fringes of the ongoing debate, where their shrill accusations, loaded language, and throbbing moral certainty could languish in the obscurity they deserved."

More compelling and beautiful than a textbook but easier to manage than strict biographies or insanely long year-by-year accounts, Founding Brothers is an awesome choice for someone wanting to dip their toes in this chapter of history.

Movie Short: Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is one of the best movies I’ve seen. It’s hilarious on so many levels. Treat yourself and watch it, especially if you’re living with your family (or are trying to start one). Five stars, five stars, five stars. Merry Christmas!

How Do You Develop Self-Confidence?

In April I said, "The single biggest divider between the good and the great is self-confidence."

I saw my friend Rahim Fazal today (a really impressive person!), and we got on the topic of self-confidence. I raised the question: How do you develop self-confidence? Here’s what we brainstormed:

  • Celebrate small wins. Life is a series of small steps. Each step you take which brings you closer to your goal is worth a pat on the back — even if you don’t make it to the end.
  • Talk to people. Seek out advice and help from positive people. In addition to simple encouragement, when you have a "personal board of advisors," some of the impact of a failure can be absorbed by them.
  • You be the carrot and the stick. Try not to rely on others for approval or motivation.
  • Perspective. This is most important. Gaining perspective on the course of events is mighty difficult. All the more so for young people, since we rarely "look back" (and have little to look back on!). In general, I think our greatest successes and our greatest failures are often not as important as we think.

What else?