Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to Create Your Own Startup Community

Guest Post by Brad Feld.

While working on the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I developed four principles, which I call The Boulder Thesis, that I believe are necessary for the development of a vibrant, long-term, sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem.

1. Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.

2. The leaders must have a long-term commitment.

3. The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.

4. The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.

The Kauffman Foundation has been an incredibly powerful influence on my thinking around Startup Communities. As the leading foundation in the world supporting entrepreneurship, they’ve been an incredible source of knowledge, resources, experience, and wisdom on the topic.

In addition, they are incredibly creative folks. They worked with me to put together a short video as part of the Kauffman Sketchbook series which I completely love. I think it does a fantastic job of explaining the Boulder Thesis.

Brad is one of the managing directors at Foundry Group, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage software / Internet companies throughout the United States. He is also the co-founder of TechStars, a mentor-driven accelerator, author of several books and blogs, and a marathon runner. Read more.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Be Vulnerable

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Guest Post by Brad Feld.

We are told that leaders must be strong. They must be confident. They must be unflinching. They must hide their fear. They must never blink. They cannot be soft in any way.


Last night, after my first public talk on the new book that Amy and I just released titled Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, a woman came up to me afterwards and gave me two pieces of feedback. The first was that I expressed incredible vulnerability in my talk. She thanked me for that. She then suggested that I hadn’t done a good job of weaving the notion of vulnerability into the importance of the dynamics of the relationship that Amy and I have.

She was absolutely correct on both fronts. Amy and I allow ourselves to be very vulnerable with each other. We aren't afraid of each other and – by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable – we are more direct, honest, and clear about what is on our minds. It works both ways – we are more able to hear the other person, and more able to offer feedback in a constructive way, because we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

But it doesn't stop there. I’m allow myself to be very vulnerable with my partners Seth, Jason, and Ryan. And they allow themselves to be vulnerable with me and each other. We embrace the notion of “brutal honesty” with each other – we say things as we see them, as we believe them, and as directly as we can to each other – while at the same time recognizing that the other person is open to any feedback, in any tone, in any way. Notably, we are each vulnerable to each other, which makes our communication much more powerful and effective.

I try to be bidirectionally vulnerable with every entrepreneur I work with. I try my hardest, but when I hurt someone, I want to hear why. When I let someone down, I want to hear why. When I am struggling, I talk openly about it. When I've failed, I listen to why. And I hope that every entrepreneur I work with feels the same way, or whatever their version of “being vulnerable” is.

I’m vulnerable to the broader community I engage with. I’m open about my struggles – personally and professionally. I’m not bashful about being wrong, and owning it. And, when I get feedback, my ears are always open. Sure, I get plenty of random criticism from nameless, faceless people. That used to annoy me – now I just put them in the bucked of “anonymous coward” and delete it from my brain. If they can offer me the feedback directly, in their own voice, with their own identity, I’m open to it. I’ll let myself be vulnerable in that context. But I draw the line at random, anonymous attacks, especially ad hominem ones.

The great leaders I know are vulnerable. Maybe not to everyone, maybe not all the time, and maybe not in all contexts. But the allow themselves to be, simply, themselves. Human. They allow others in. They know they can be wrong. They know they can fail. And they know they can improve. Vulnerable.

That’s part of being a great leader. And a great partner – business or personal. And it opens you up to be a greater human. Thanks to the person who reminded me of that last night.

Brad is one of the managing directors at Foundry Group, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage software / Internet companies throughout the United States. He is also the co-founder of TechStars, a mentor-driven accelerator, author of several books and blogs, and a marathon runner. Read more.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Throw Your Life a Curve

Guest post by Whitney Johnson

Our view of the world is powered by personal algorithms: observing how all of the component pieces (and people) that make up our personal social system interact, and looking for patterns to predict what will happen next. When systems behave linearly and react immediately, we tend to be fairly accurate with our forecasts. This is why toddlers love discovering light switches: cause and effect are immediate. The child flips the switch, and on goes the light. But our predictive power plummets when there is a time delay or non-linearity, as in the case of a CEO who delivers better-than-expected earnings only to wonder at a drop in the stock price.

Enter my co-author, MIT-trained strategist and engineer Juan Carlos Méndez-García, who consults with both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. According to Méndez-García, one of the best models for making sense of a non-linear world is the S-curve, the model we have used to understand the diffusion of disruptive innovations, and which he and I speculate can be used to understand personal disruption — the necessary pivots in our own career paths.

In complex systems like a business (or a brain), cause and effect may not always be as clear as the relationship between the light switch and the light bulb. There are time-delayed and time-dependent relationships in which huge effort may yield little in the near-term, or in which high output today may be the result of actions taken a long time ago. The S-curve decodes these systems by providing signposts along a path that, while frequently trod, is not always evident. Our hypothesis is that those who can successfully navigate, even harness, the successive cycles of learning and maxing out that resemble the S-curve will thrive in this era of personal disruption.

Let's do a quick review. According to the theory of the diffusion of innovations — an attempt to understand how, why and at what rate ideas and technology spread throughout cultures — diffusion or adoption is relatively slow at the outset until a tipping point is reached. Then you enter hypergrowth, which typically happens somewhere between 10-15% of market penetration. Saturation is reached at 90%+.

With Facebook for example, assuming an estimated market opportunity of one billion, it took roughly 4 years to reach penetration of 10%. Once Facebook reached a critical mass of a hundred million users, hypergrowth kicked in due to the network effect (i.e. friends and family were now on Facebook), as well as virality (email updates, photo albums for friends of friends, etc.). Though we could quibble, depending on our inputs, over when Facebook will reach saturation, there is no question the rate of growth has begun to slow and is now limited, if for no other reason, by the number of people who can access the service. (Here's some more on Méndez-García's Facebook and S-curve math.)

One anecdotal example of how the S-curve model can help us better predict the future is the experience of golfer Dan McLaughlin. Never having played 18 holes of golf, in April 2010, McLaughlin quit his job as a commercial photographer to pursue a goal of becoming a top professional golfer through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. During the first 18 months, improvement was slow as McLaughlin first practiced his putting, chipping, and his drive. Then, as he began to put the various pieces together, improvement accelerated, consistent with hypergrowth behavior. While he didn't track how quickly his handicap decreased, making it impossible for us to build an S-curve, 28 months into the project, he has surpassed 91% of the 26 million golfers who register a handicap with the US Golf Association (USGA) database. Not surprisingly, his rate of improvement (if measured as handicap) is now slowing as he faces competition from the top 10% amateur golfers.

Just as understanding the S-curve can keep discouragement at bay as we build new knowledge, it can also help us understand why ennui kicks in once we reach the plateau. As we approach mastery, our learning rate decelerates, and while the ability to do something automatically implies competence, it also means our brains are now producing less of the feel-good neurotransmitters — the thrill ride is over.

As our learning crests, should we fail to jump to new curves, we may actually precipitate our own decline. That doesn't necessarily mean a financial downfall, but our emotional and social well-being will take a hit. Saul Kaplan, Chief Catalyst at Business Innovation Factory, shares: "My life has been about searching for the steep learning curve because that's where I do my best work. When I do my best work, money and stature have always followed." Or paraphrasing James Allworth, "Steve Jobs solved the innovator's dilemma because his focus was never on profit, but better and better products." Forget the plateau of profits: seek and scale a learning curve.

The S-curve mental model makes a compelling case for personal disruption. We may be quite adept at doing the math around our future when things are linear, but neither business nor life is linear, and ultimately what our brain needs, even requires, is the dopamine of the unpredictable. More importantly, as we inhabit an increasingly zig-zag world, the best curve you can throw the competition is your ability to leap from one learning curve to the next.

This post was co-authored with Juan Carlos Mendez-Garcia, managing director of 8020world. Born in Colombia, he has lived and worked in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Juan Carlos holds an MBA from MIT Sloan, a Masters in Systems Engineering and Bachelors on Electrical Engineering.

Images copyright 2012 Juan C. Mendez and Whitney Johnson. All rights reserved.

Whitney Johnson is a co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton Christensen's investment firm, and the author of Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012). Ms. Johnson is available for speaking and consulting. Follow her on twitter at @johnsonwhitney.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

You Aren't Trapped... Plan Your Work Around Your Life.

Guest Post by Anna Runyan

How I Changed My Career and Life To Make Me Happy

Have you ever felt stuck in a job just because you have to pay the bills?  I have.  Have you ever realized how debt influences your life and career choices?  I have.  Have you ever thought that you would do a different job if you didn’t have to worry about your student loan payments?  I have. 

After a few years, I got sick and tired of having these thoughts so I decided to make some huge changes in my life in order to take control of my career.  This month begins a new chapter in my career.  But first, here is the back-story:

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

We paid off $80,000 of Debt in 18 Months.

Seven years ago when my husband and I got married, we decided the best thing to do was take on lots of debt to keep up with the Jones’.  We continued to make large purchasing decisions such as buying brand new cars, traveling abroad and refusing to really think about our financial future.

Three years ago I happened to be reading another blog that was about getting out of debt.  The writer said she followed the advice from Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover and got out of debt.  So I checked it out.  When you have lots of debt, thinking about getting out of it is very overwhelming!  What I liked about this book is he put it all into baby steps, which just made it so easy!  With the advice in this book, my husband and I were able to pile away our income, do as much as possible to decrease our expenses and pay off $80,000 of student loan, credit card and car loan debt in 18 months.  (And yes, we did celebrate when we finished).  We still can’t believe it and are so happy that we made the choice to work our butts off early in our lives instead of just putting it off until later.
I am writing this today hoping that I can inspire just one other reader to take a different path for their financial future just like the other blogger who helped me change my life.

So what does that have to do with my career?
Everything.  Without debt controlling your life, you can make life and career decisions that really make you happy.   You have nothing hanging over your head nor do you have student loan, credit card and car loan bills piling up to pay.  You have savings available for emergencies and you aren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck wondering if you will ever have the life and career you dreamed of.  Not having to worry about debt allows your mind to open up so that you can really think about what makes you happy and what you really want to do with your life.  That is exactly what happened to me.
My husband and I got out of debt in April-12.  For the last few months, I have been able to really think about what I want to do for work.  I have been able to think about what makes me happy and what type of work fits best for my interests, values and mission in life.  I have been able to explore creative work assignments and new career opportunities that I never could have thought about with debt hanging over my head.

So, I decided to take a 50% pay cut.

Yep, that’s right.  Last month, I made the bold move of starting a part-time arrangement at work.  But, I don’t see this as stepping down.  Instead, this arrangement is giving me the opportunity to open up my creative side and apply myself in other places.  Since going part-time a few days ago, I have already received another job offer and a teaching opportunity at a University.  These things would never have opened if I hadn’t taken the time to evaluate my future career and myself.

I un-trapped myself and other options came flooding in for the other “part-time” of my life.

After this experience, I truly believe that your financial decisions and priorities directly affect your career.  If you need to pay bills and students loans, you may continue working at a job that you may not enjoy just because you have to pay those bills.  Which is fine! But, set a goal to pay off your debt in the next year or two and then move on to something that makes you happier! Get yourself out of the debt that is clouding your professional future and instead find areas that you will succeed at even more because you are passionate about them.  There are so many things you can do if you aren’t worried about paying off your debt.  You could travel, start a business, or take a 50% pay cut to explore and evaluate your professional future like I did.

You aren’t trapped.  Plan your work around your life, not your life around your work. Are you trapped? How can you start taking steps to untrap yourself?

P.S. If you want to know how I was able to go part-time, it’s really simple.  I just asked.  That’s it and they said yes.  So what are you scared of asking for at work?  A raise? A promotion?  Just ask.  What’s the worse that can happen?

Classy Career Girl, a blog written by Anna Runyan, provides advice to young professionals on how to be classy as they climb the corporate ladder.  Her blog covers topics such as business chic fashion, career motivation, personal development, networking, and office etiquette. Connect with her at http://www.classycareergirl.comIf you would like to learn more about how to find a career that you love to go to everyday, check out her free video training series at