Monthly Archives: February 2007

Losers Say They’ll Do Their Best. Winners Go Home and…

At Monday evening’s 24 gathering, as the ping-pong smack talk between local angel investor David Cohen and me began, Brad Feld took me aside, looked me firm in the eye and said, "I want you to beat him, you understand?"

"I’ll do my best, sir," I said to The Man.

"Losers say they’ll do their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen," Brad could have responded (he didn’t), the immortal words from Nicholas Cage in The Rock.

Tuesday morning David showed up at my condo with a water bottle, sports pants, and a tennis tournament t-shirt. I was dressed in baggy shorts and a tight-fitting t-shirt (all my t-shirts seem too tight — guess I’m wearing hand-me-downs from my brothers). We both went into the bathroom and produced urine samples, the standard practice in competitive table tennis. Overdramatization aside, we played five very competitive matches, sweat streaming down my face by the fourth game.

I would have rather not shared who won 3 out of the 5 games, but I guess it’s common knowledge: When I showed up to a Mobius VC company board meeting today, Brad noted, "I hear you lost in ping-pong." I mumbled something incoherent, the guilt like toothpaste out of a tube — once it’s out, it’s out — and Brad repeated, "I hear you lost in ping-pong." I could muster only the most embarrassing of smiles, and pulled out my BlackBerry and typed a quick note: "Kick David Cohen’s ass."

As if an exhausting but nonetheless exhilarating morning of ping-pong wasn’t enough, at noontime Dave Jilk and I hiked Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It was a beautiful day and intense hike. Dave doesn’t screw around — we charged right up, braving steep inclines and rocks and ice. We reached the summit in about 30 minutes which I’m told is an impressive feat. Thanks Dave for leading me on a fun climb!

P2260009 View

Herzberg: True Motivators vs. Hygiene Factors

A friend mentioned Herzberg’s theory of motivation to me today. Herzberg says there are two kinds of motivational concerns: true motivators and hygiene factors:

Herzberg  (1959) constructed a two-dimensional paradigm of factors affecting people’s attitudes about work. He concluded that such factors as company policy, supervision, interpersonal relations, working conditions, and salary are hygiene factors rather than motivators. According to the theory, the absence of hygiene factors can create job dissatisfaction, but their presence does not motivate or  create satisfaction.

The key idea here is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction can exist on different scales.

This theory can be extended beyond workplace content. For example, when a venture capitalist is considering an investment, s/he must be assured that the hygiene factors are taken care of — the founders’ resumes are truthful, references give thumbs up, the company is incorporated and able to receive investment, and so forth. If these factors don’t check out, it definitely precludes investment. If these factors do check out, it doesn’t mean the investment is prudent; just possible.

Whether you’re an employer trying to motivate employees, or an investor doing due diligence, it seems important to figure out whether you’re focusing on a hygiene factor or a true driver.

Changing Your Mind in the Executive Suite

I’ve posted before about why it’s a shame our obsession with "consistency" prevents people from changing their mind. The John Kerry flip-flop saga illuminated this obsession.

Daniel Gross has a piece on Slate about U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney and how his corporate success taught him that changing your views based on the market you’re playing in is common business practice — but it’s not necessarily smart politics:

…Such hypocrisy, which turns off voters, is something like a job requirement for CEOs. In the executive suite, abandoning deeply held attitudes and reversing positions are job requirements. How often have you seen a CEO proclaim that a struggling unit is not for sale, only to put it on the block a few months later? A CEO will praise a product to the skies one day and then cancel it the next. He’ll boast, sincerely, that his company is No. 1 in the industry and then, when he quits the next day to run a rival, claim that the new firm is tops. CEOs take their cues from Mike Damone of Fast Times at Ridgemont High: "Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be."

These business flips are fine, because in the corporate world, people don’t confuse advocacy of a company’s strategy or products and services with personal honor or integrity. Nobody expects Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to wear suits made at Wal-Mart, or Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert to furnish his homes with appliances from Sears, or for the gazillionaires behind Triarc to eat lunch at Arby’s.

Good CEOs don’t simply stake out public positions and stick to them for 20 years. They devise new business strategies and business plans to cope with changing market conditions. Energy-company executives who are suddenly eager to do something about global warming aren’t seen as hypocrites, they’re seen as shrewd operators. If the world changes, you don’t simply do and say the same thing. You bring in Bain & Company, commission a study, announce a restructuring, start manufacturing in China.

Leaving Your Own Brand of Breadcrumbs in the Forest

In Lauren Slater’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2006 she writes lucidly about the art of the essay. Here’s my favorite thought:

Essay writing is not about facts, although the essay may contain facts. Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door.

Yum. Or how about this, in response to the uproar over her book Opening Skinner’s Box (which I read last year and enjoyed):

Being the object of such predation over an extended period of time has led me to think a lot about the critical role of kindness in writing and in life. It has led me to see that I…have in the past written pieces with too much tooth, something the press generally rewards. I no longer write this way. I cannot abide ill will in my own work, and I dislike it when I see it in the work of others. I now believe that good writing, and good living, must have a core of gentleness.

Good living must have a core of gentleness. I like it.

To Sharpen a Vague Phrase, To Make Pithier an Old Maxim

What a skill: to boil down something to its essence, or to sharpen a vague phrase, or to add punch to an otherwise dry paragraph. Ben Franklin had a knack for this, as Walter Isaacson notes in his Franklin biography:

Franklin’s talent was inventing a few new maxims and polishing up a lot of older ones to make them pithier. For example, the old English proverb “Fresh fish and new-come guests smell, but that they are three days old” Franklin made: “Fish and visitors stink in three days.” Likewise, “A muffled cat is no good mouser” became “The cat in gloves catches no mice.” He took the old saying “Many strokes fell great oaks” and gave it a sharper moral edge: “Little strokes fell great oaks.” He also sharpened “Three may keep a secret if two of them are away” into “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” And the Scottish saying that “a listening damsel and a speaking castle shall never end with honor” was turned into “Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.”

I absolutely love little maxims or proverbs. What are your favorites? Do you have a sharper variation on a common truism?

Book Short: 1776 by David McCullough

"Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages." – George Washington

1776 is a magical book — but I’m hardly the first person to say this. McCullough does a stellar job at recounting the events of 1776 and the dire straits Americans found themselves in when fighting for independence from the British.

We get good glimpses of Washington the leader: delegating responsibility when he sees brilliance in his deputies (like Gen. Knox), being brutally honest with himself ("Seeing things as they were and not as he wished them to be was one of his salient strengths") but relentlessly upbeat to the people underneath him, and of course, never throwing in the towel. (For more I’ll have to check out His Excellency by Joseph Ellis.)

One side note on studying history: While I could never get into U.S. history in school in the chronological format (see: my dismal AP score), I have gotten engaged as I pursue it self-directedly in the spirit of a mind-map. In other words, I picked the most interesting period (revolutionary war) and now will emanate from there, pursuing tangents and preceding and subsequent events and eventually I hope to coalesce a complete picture around my revolutionary war starting point. An interesting difference in approaching the material…

1776 is accessible and fun — a must-read for anyone interested in U.S. history or in simply a defining year in the creation of a new country.

Earthquake Zone vs. Hurricane Zone – The Anxiety of Certainty

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

-Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing, "The Collected Poetry of Don Rumsfeld"

Say you’re trying to decide between living in California or Florida. Both are natural disaster hotspots. In California, scientists confidently predict that a big quake will hit sometime over the next 30 years, maybe today, maybe in 30 years. No one knows exactly when. In Florida, hurricanes reliably strike every year and cause billions and billions of dollars of damage.

When you live in California, you might spend a little time every few years checking your emergency supplies. However, no one in California regularly worries about earthquakes. You don’t walk around each day wondering if today is the day.

In Florida, there are designated "Hurricane Seasons". Residents know that during certain months of the year hurricanes will come. Meteorologists can forecast the timing of hurricanes and residents can prepare. TV stations interview residents beforehand and ask, "How do you feel about the upcoming hurricane?"

In Florida they trade certainty and the ability to prepare for the psychological anxiety that yearly hurricane seasons bring. In California they trade uncertainty and the inability to prepare for the psychological tranquility that comes with such unknowing.

Natural disasters may be equally devastating in both states from a destruction or financial perspective (the Big Quake will make up for several years of hurricanes), but from a psychological / stress perspective, I would argue they ravage Florida — or places where there’s certainty around a frequent, smaller event versus uncertainty around an infrequent, larger event — more.

All else being equal, would you rather live in a earthquake zone or hurricane zone? Is it possible to extrapolate this thesis into a larger point about how we deal with known unknowns versus known knowns?

When You Look Into the Abyss, What Do You See?

Alan Shimel, Chief Strategy Officer of StillSecure, a Mobius VC company, has a great personal reflection up on his blog. I met Alan briefly the other week when he stopped by Seth‘s office (and my desk). In only a couple minutes of talking I felt the emotional warmth oozing out.

Why is he reflecting now?

There comes moments in all of our lives where we stop and want to bookmark where we are and reflect on who, what and why we do what we do.

It’s short, personal, and gratitude-filled. A key to happiness is to be aware of and express your gratitude.

He quotes the movie Wall Street:

“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” —Hal Holbrook, Wall Street

When I pause and reflect, I, like Alan, see a very lucky man indeed — a full plate of activities and adventures, wonderfully supportive friends and mentors, a loving and non-dysfunctional family, really solid roots (same bedroom, same house, same neighborhood in San Francisco my whole life!), and self-confidence that any time I come to plate I’m capable of hitting a home run. All the while, I’m lucky because I have significant challenges ahead of me — ones that will doubtless bring their fair share of failure and self-doubt, which, when cycled through, ultimately strengthens a person.

When you look into the abyss, what do you see?

Book Review: One Person / Multiple Careers

Marci Alboher has written a great new book that came out yesterday called One Person / Multiple Careers. She sent me an early copy and after reading it I spoke with her on the phone.

The premise is this: From lawyer/chefs to police officer/personal trainers to mom/CEOs, more and more people are building careers filled with slashes. Sometimes “slash” people live a multi-tenent career all at once; other times they layer past experiences into their current job (in other words, they may officially be a full-time “mom” but they think of themselves as “CEO/Mom” by incorporating their CEO experiences into their mothering). However they do it, slash people usually don’t work conventional 9-5 jobs and usually are entrepreneurial in constructing their sense of self.

I have been an entrepreneur / writer / student for several years and hope I never have to give up my free-agent, slash lifestyle. Leading multiple “careers” at once is a most fulfilling path. After all, my theory is that around 50% of the seeds I plant never germinate, so I always need to be involved in multiple activities / careers — that is, plant many seeds at once — to ensure a decent number sprout.

Marci outlines good tips for building a customized career of your dreams by becoming a slash. Marci — thanks for sending this to me! Go evangelize the wonders of a slash lifestyle!

Two Kinds of Blogs: Focused and Personality-Driven

Chris Yeh presents his Grand Unified Theorem of Blogging:

The natural limit on the size of a blog’s audience depends on the degree to which the blog

1) sticks to a particular topic, and

2) creates a cult of personality around the writer.

Chris notes that we can’t read every post from every feed:

As a result, every blog reader will eventually find himself forced to winnow his feeds, to focus on those feeds that are richest in relevant content. The two basic measures we can expect him to apply are:

a) Does the post cover one of my preferred topics?
b) Is the post from someone I like and want to stay connected with?

The First Law of Blogging states that the more topics a blog covers, the lower the percentage of posts that will match up with the preferred topic set of any particular reader.

My blog is hardly "focused" — there are some themes, but it’s more general than most. This probably limits my readership (but it’s more fun for me). People, then, read my blog either because my eclectic set of interests happen to overlap with their eclectic set of interests, and/or because they’re interested in the author (me) and want to stay connected.

The maximum audience of a general blog like Ben’s depends on the extent to which he is able to build a Cult of Ben.

I would argue that "cult" blogs may have a smaller readership than a focused, rigorously topical blog, but the relationship between the author and readers is richer. In other words, because the ~2,000 people who read my blog regularly have decided to invest time in "Ben" (not simply in a sole topic like entrepreneurship), they feel like they know me, I feel like I know them, and it’s a more emotionally fulfilling exercise.

This being said, if your blog’s main purpose to make money from Google AdWords or be able to brag about having more than 10,000 RSS readers, by all means, the formula is clear: be focused, write a specialist blog.