Baby Names

Now that Renee and I are within 10 weeks of meeting Baby G, it’s time to get serious about names.  Other than my genetics, this will be one of the few things I give my son that will follow him throughout his entire life.  Man, that’s pressure to not screw this up!  What kind of name should I give my son?  A “strong” name like Thor, Magnus, Adonis, Maximillian, Bruno or Nikolai?  Or maybe a “sensitive” name like Jayden, Tristan, Emanuel or Gaston?  Not that I don’t like these names, just a bit on the fringe for my taste.

Maybe I should focus on the most common names for CEO’s as published by LinkedIn – Howard, Peter, Bob, Jack, Bruce or Fred?  Or, it would be kinda cool for him to be a super-star athlete so he can make millions and take care of dear old dad in my old age.  In that case, according to LinkedIn, we should name him Ryan, Matt or Jason.

The most common 2-letter name is Ed.  The most common 10-letter name is Alessandro.

Then there are family names.  Of course, I’m partial to Robert as three generations on my side carry this name.  Renee’s dad is a Robert as well.  Mmmm, maybe a good middle name?

Christopher, Keith, Sonny, Jerry, Daniel are close family names.

Maybe we’ll choose 3 names and meet our son before we decide what name fits best?

Hey parents out there, how did you do it?

On My “To Read” Shelf

Unfortunately, my “to read” shelf is growing faster than I can clear my “currently reading” shelf.  Busy with work and lot’s of travel have encroached on my reading time.  But here are the books on my list, as usual a mix of business, personal interest and self-improvement.

The Presence Process:  A Healing Journey into Present Moment Awareness by Michael Brown.  Recommended by family, always healthy I believe to have a self-awareness read in the queue.

The Big Short:  Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker and The Blind Side.  A close friend recommended this read which delves into the macrocosmic tale of greed and fear during the 2007/8 Wall Street crisis.

Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.  A personal journey into understanding ultra-distance running as a way of life, health and contentment among the Mexican Tarahumara tribe.  My running life has become un-fun and too functional, so am looking for a little inspiration.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.  This book was written nearly 75 years ago now as a philosophical approach to living life and interacting with our fellowman, conceived through research and personal interviews of leaders of that time – Ford, Edison, Rockefeller, Graham Bell and 500 others.

Little Bets:  How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims (@petersims).  Sims is an entrepreneur, VC and author of True North.  His research contends that many of the most successful companies and individuals did not result from some genius idea, but rather through a masterful approach to experimentation and learning.  Excited to read this one, it has just recently been released.

Do More Faster:  TechStars Lessons to Accelerate your Startup by Brad Feld (@bfeld) and David Cohen (@davidcohen).  TechStars is a successful startup accelerator operating in several U.S. cities co-founded by Feld and Cohen.  I follow both actively through Twitter and their individual blogs and have met Brad recently.

I need to find a way to carve out more reading time before this list gets out of hand!

What’s on your list?

My Favorite Twitter Follows

I wanted to follow up a prior post on my favorite startup blogs with a post on a handful of my favorite Twitter follows.  These are a group of folks, most of whom I only know by reputation, that have something to say or news to share about technology, startups or entertainment.  As I mentioned previously, Twitter has become a go-to source of news and insights for me, an incredibly efficient way to absorb a lot of information quickly.  Enjoy!

News, Technology & Startups

  • @TrueCar – of course.
  • @TechCrunch – the leading startup blog, news feed.  Good iPhone app too.
  • @TEDNews – news source for incredible human innovations
  • @venturehacks – Startup advice
  • @nytimes – Also on my iPhone
  • @cnnbrk – CNN Breaking News
  • @GOOD – An association of “pragmatic idealists” focusing on issues of Good in the world
  • @Oxfam – An international group of 15 organizations across the world developing solutions for poverty & injustice.
  • @bfeld – Brad Feld, VC and prolific blogger, highlighted in a prior post.  Highly active on Twitter.
  • @msuster – Mark Suster, Entrepreneur turned VC, very active blogger and on Twitter.
  • @sacca – Chris Sacca, Entrepreneur and early investor in Twitter.  Highly active.
  • @Bill_Gross – Founder of Idealab and 100 other companies over 30 years
  • @tferriss – Tim Ferriss, author of “4-Hour Work Week” and “4-Hour Body”.  Interesting and unique.
  • @fredwilson – Highly regarded VC and daily blogger.
  • @cdixon – Chris Dixon, entrepreneur founder of Hunch.
  • @davemcclure – Founder of 500startups, a seed fund and startup accelerator.
  • @hnshah – Hiten Shah, Co-Founder of KissMetrics, great insights for entrepreneurs.
  • @bhorowitz – Ben Horowitz, Founder of LoudCloud turned VC.  Phenomenal blog that I inadvertently left off my previous post.

Entertainment & Other

  • @SudsNYC – Sudhir Kandula, a friend and top 3 finalist in “America’s Next Great Restaurant”.
  • @playgrounddad – Connecting modern dads with products/events that help them spend better time with their kids.
  • @StartupJesus – Fake Jesus, runs a startup that is “going to change the world”.  Of course it will.
  • @ConanOBrien – love his humor and his show.
  • @BorowitzReport – Andy Borowitz, hilarious quips on current events.  King of the one-liners.
  • @donttrythis – Adam Savage, host of Mythbusters
  • @TheOnion – America’s finest fake news source
  • @bobsaget – ever since he appeared on Entourage, I can’t get enough of him.
  • @shitmydadsays – Justin who lives with his 74-year old dad.  4-letter word alert, but freakin’ funny.

What are some great Twitter follows that I missed?

Do You Have a Disaster Kit?

I didn’t.  Never really thought emergency preparedness until it came up in a discussion group of media, entertainment and technology executives I’m involved with here in Los Angeles.  And as an expecting father I became particularly interested in this topic (and others).  An irrational and emotional response?  Maybe.

But keep in mind I live in Santa Monica in the greater Los Angeles area, the epicenter for speculation and concern regarding “The Big One” earthquake that will originate on the San Andreas Fault someday.  In fact, the USGS has a downright scary simulation of the 7.8 Big One that originates on the fault line and fans out to the coast and right up my driveway.  To give you perspective, a 7.8 earthquake involves ground movement of 3ft laterally and “shaking” at 1ft/second.  Crazy.

The email discussion thread started out rational enough among the group – if you want to be prepared for a natural disaster, there is lot’s of guidance out there on what to include in your home or auto kits, sources for purchasing supplies, recommendations on what to do when a disaster hits and there’s no road or phone access, etc.

As is typical among this intellectual group, a few of which are experts in statistical modeling for natural disasters, another an entrepreneur that sells disaster kits, a debate ensued that left most folks in 3 distinct camps:

1) Emergency preparedness is based on irrational exuberance, that statistically speaking and from a cost/benefit standpoint, is a waste of time and money, even if you live in Southern California, Southeast Asia, Japan or Florida where adverse natural events tend to occur.  Add up the cost for every human to have a “kit”, then factor in the economic benefit of lives saved and if the number is negative, it is irrational.

2) Basic survival kits for home, auto and “on the go” are no-brainers.  These include food, water, first aid and other survival gear along with a “family plan” of where to meet should roads and phones be inaccessible.

3) “Extreme” (my word) Emergency Preparedness which advocates for all of the items in #2 in addition to retaining firearms in the home and auto in anticipation of possible riots, theft and personal attack by those who were not prepared.  In some cases, underground bunkers are installed and stocked with supplies.

After taking in all the data, I fall squarely in the camp of #2, based primarily on where I live.  I’ve just ordered basic kits for home and auto, but personally I’m not a big fan of having a firearm in the house, just my personal preference.  Renee and I are working out a simple “meet up” plan should we not be able to use our cell phones or our cars.  We’re talking a hundred bucks and a few minutes of time all in here.

Seems like a reasonable cost/benefit to me.

Do you have a disaster kit or plan?  What’s in it?

Tech Bubble, Blubble or Rubble?

I kid you not.  Over the past week, all three of these words have been used to describe what is happening in the tech investment space right now.  Much of the discussion has centered around a comparison of 2011 to the infamous tech bubble of 2000 in which many of us participated, failed and hopefully learned from.  The general consensus is that what is happening right now is quite different, in a good way, than the disaster bubble burst of 2000.  And I agree.  Here are some key messages pulled from a few sources that I think sum up what happened in 2000, what is happening now, and why the optimism and high tech valuations now are justified.

From “We’re in the Middle of a Terrible Blubble!“, Michael Arrington hits the nail on the head when he says,

“A perfectly reasonable 2000 tech startup business decision – spend $10 million on a massive advertising campaign that may bring in $500k in revenue. The “branding” value makes up the difference, and those few new customers will continue to spend money and tell their friends!  Grab territory while it’s there to be grabbed, the thinking went. We’ll figure out the business later. Money was so easy to come by, it made sense to some.”

This is EXACTLY what my company did back in 1999.  We raised $55M in an IPO with an underdeveloped website, zero revenue and a plan – detailed in our prospectus – to spend $15M+ on advertising and branding campaigns.  Insane right?  Didn’t seem so back then when money was being thrown at us.  We blew that money on advertising, didn’t sufficiently monetize the traffic, then had to shrink the team and hunker down to survive the storm of 2000.

Michael’s main point in the article is that back in 2000 the objective was to raise way more money than you need, tens of millions, and spend it all as fast as you can, not to build product but to build brand and awareness.  Now, companies are raising less money, but at valuations that are potentially too high (because of “blubbering” angel investors), in order to hire as many engineers as possible to build a valuable property, then raise a follow-on round after proof of concept to scale and at much higher valuations.

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and tech billionaire, makes another interesting point in response to the article above,

“Its a bubble when you are on the elevator and people outside the industry are telling people to buy things they don’t understand. In this market, its about VCs and Angels wanting to be part of the “next big stock”.  Its as if VCs and Brokerage houses think they need to have pretty portfolio companies, so they take on huge risk with enormous valuations for Twitter, FB, Groupon, etc.  Not that they aren’t great companies, but there is so much market , as well as performance risk, the risk profile is through the roof.  This isn’t a bubble, its a Rubble.”

Finally, there’s a well written piece that’s worth reading called “Bubble, What Bubble?” that takes an analytical approach to comparing 2000 with 2011, concluding that certain “bubble criteria” are not being met in today’s market.

All of these perspectives and my own experience leads me to believe that we are not remotely in a bubble similar to 2000.

What do you think?

4D Ultrasound, Wonderful and Creepy

On Monday Renee and I went for our non-medical, baby-in-the-belly-for-entertainment 4D ultrasound.  This procedure is where they use a skin-level view imaging system in combination with the ultrasound to give 3D views of your unborn child plus movement (thus the 4D).  We spent about an hour with the technician poking, prodding and moving Renee into various positions to give us the most non-creepy view possible of our little one.  It was wonderful and creepy at the same time as evidenced by the picture.  Renee’s family will be happy to know that Baby G has her nose and mouth!


Why Most Startups Need a “Business Guy”

I read an intriguing blog post titled “What the Hell Does a “Business Guy” Do? by serial entrepreneur Rob Walling.  The basic premise of his post is that the only compelling reason a “technical founder” should bring on a “business founder” (BF) as a partner is if that BF has “successful marketing experience”.  While I agree that marketing, specifically customer acquisition, is probably the most important and difficult problem to solve in a startup’s early days, I believe there are other important aspects of both building a team and a foundation for scaling the business that technical founders (in my experience) don’t always possess.

Of course I’m biased, because I represent the BF that Rob discusses.  Having been on the ground floor of 3 startups as the lead business and operations person, there are a few consistent areas of value that I’ve seen critical to early stage success, in addition to the marketing/customer acquisition skills Rob mentioned.

I would define these areas of value in the context of what I believe a BF profile must look like.  In my opinion, a credible BF needs to have demonstrated operational success in a startup environment, from early product development through financing, rapid growth and scale, including:

  • has been through multiple early product fails and iterations
  • has a high tolerance for ambiguity, chaos and daily priority changes
  • can contribute immediately in at least one critical business functional role at the outset – Marketing or Biz Dev ideally
  • has navigated a financing from external investors
  • has built a cohesive, uber-talented team that are the best at what they do AND that share similar culture sensibilities and work ethic (this is hard to do)
  • has successfully acquired and scaled customers, partners and revenue
  • has established metrics for tracking business success and a way to reliably measure and adjust
  • has battle scars, fail stories and an ability to articulate why the same fails won’t happen again.

So, this BF is not just a strategist or marketer, but a true partner to the entrepreneur who has a unique ability to take the entrepreneur’s vision and build a real business out of it.  The importance of this experience should not be underestimated.  True visionary entrepreneurs typically have an “anything’s possible” belief system and won’t be deterred.  Balancing that perspective with someone who can implement and tolerate that kind of ambiguity and chaos is paramount.

If the technical co-founder has experience in all these areas, then yes, I agree with Rob that partnering with a non-technical founder may just represent unnecessary equity dilution, but I’d venture there are lot’s of new businesses being created right now by super-developers without these important experiences under their belts.

Some might argue that all of these skills don’t have to be wrapped up in one person and that they don’t have to all be present at the earliest stages of a company’s development.  It ultimately comes down to the skills and experiences of the original founder, but having a BF partner who has been through the “business building” process successfully can ensure the correct sequencing of process, people and technology and let the entrepreneur focus on high value creation – strategy, product and funding.

What do you think?

My Favorite Tech Startup Blogs

There are lots of interesting and insightful tech industry blogs out there, many of which are highly trafficked and very well known.  Such properties like Techcrunch, VentureBeat, OnStartups, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable are all great blog and news feeds, but I’d like to share a few of my personal favorites that are popular, but not as mainstream as some of these news sites.  Here goes:

Both Sides of the Table.  This blog is written by Mark Suster, a leading Los Angeles VC and entrepreneur.  Mark interviews entrepreneurs as well as shares his experience as an investor.  Not news based, rather techniques and insights for helping entrepreneurs succeed.  One of the most active bloggers out there.  Follow Mark on Twitter @msuster.

Feld Thoughts.  Written by Boulder-based VC Brad Feld, also an entrepreneur and now partner in Foundry Group and co-founder of TechStars.  He blogs daily about his experiences, investments and personal use of technology.  I’ve met Brad and really enjoy his daily posts.  Follow Brad on Twitter @bfeld.

A VC.  Written by now legendary VC Fred Wilson, he also posts daily with common sense advice and techniques for entrepreneurs trying to navigate fundraising, selling and operating their businesses.  He also blogs about his personal use of technology and investments being made by his firm Union Square Ventures.  Follow Fred on Twitter @fredwilson.

Tim Ferriss Blog.  Tim is the best-selling author of “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body”, both #1 NYTimes Bestsellers.  This blog is incredibly insightful and full of non-intuitive, practical advice for entrepreneurs.  I saw Tim speak in Los Angeles, pretty amazing guy.  Follow Tim on Twitter @tferriss.

Jason Calacanis Newsletter.  Jason is a serial entrepreneur and is into everything startup.  Currently the Founder of Mahalo and LAUNCH Conference, Jason puts out a periodic newsletter to subscribers.  Go to his website and enter your email in the upper right box under “Jason Nation Newsletter”.  Follow Jason on Twitter @jason.

While there are about 30 more on my list, these are my daily favs.

I’ll follow up this post with my favorite Twitter follows (a much longer list).

What are some other great startup blogs out there?

My Love Affair With Twitter

OK, so I have been a little slow on the uptake as far as social media goes.  I’m an Ops guy after all, not a self-promoting marketer, although this blog is an attempt to come out of my shell just a bit.  Sure, I’ve been a Facebook participant for years but more in a voyeur sense than a true active participant.

I never really “got” Twitter, largely due to a misconception, my second such realization in the past month when it comes to the use of technology.  My perception of Twitter has been based in the belief that its value (or lack thereof) was solely to communicate “what someone is doing right now” whether that be picking up a 6-pack at the grocery store or spying on Tom Hanks at the Beverly Hills Starbucks.  Like I have the time, energy or desire to receive up-to-the-minute status updates from quasi-friends or in many cases people I don’t know at all.  Or worse, that I have to have the added pressure in my day to tell people “I just saw Tom Hanks at Starbucks” or some other unimportant tweet.

But as I’ve committed my personal and professional development to dig deeper into social media, branch out professionally, write this blog and most important, dedicate a portion of my day to consume more information (technology news, trends, insights, points of view from respected voices in the technology community), I’ve discovered just how incredibly useful and productive services like Twitter can be to accomplishing the efficient consumption of large amounts of information.

Most of the folks I follow on Twitter are technology industry participants – entrepreneurs, VC’s, bloggers – who have been successful and have something, usually insightful, to say that is interesting to me from a personal or professional development standpoint.  It’s like a giant filtering mechanism for me, they filter and highlight news, information and their own point of view so I don’t have to find all this juicy content on my own.  I can scan tweets quickly and choose to click through links when something catches my eye.

So, it’s not just about trivial, useless updates of personal behavior or whereabouts (although there is some of that), but also about “following” those on Twitter that you genuinely respect and believe that the content they “tweet” is somehow useful in your life, whether personal or professional.

Another key point and major distinction from Facebook – the majority of the people I follow on Twitter, I’ve never met and they don’t likely know me, so I can “follow” or “un-follow” people based solely on the quality of the information I’m getting.  Much more difficult to do on Facebook.  As much as I’d like to, “un-friending” someone on Facebook who you know can be painful to do.  As a result, I get limited useful knowledge-based information from Facebook, it’s simply a way to keep up with folks and what’s going on in their lives and share the same in return.

Finally, I do feel a sense of responsibility to also contribute content to the social communities that provide value to me.  So posting on Facebook or tweeting content on Twitter is something I’m doing more regularly now – not that anyone cares, but hey, if it’s not valued then I’ll be un-followed or un-friended.

Until then, follow me on Twitter!

Building a Consumer Brand, For (Nearly) Free

Three years ago when we were just starting TrueCar, one of the biggest challenges we faced once the beta version of the product was built was how would we generate consumer awareness, credibility and ultimately drive traffic to the website?  It’s the challenge any consumer-facing web property has to overcome – inexpensive customer acquisition – unless you are one of the lucky few (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) that has an exponential viral coefficient.

And it’s not just about driving traffic to your website, but also converting that traffic to do what you want them to do – buy something, view something, tell their friends, etc.  Building credibility into the brand is critical to not only attracting who you want to your property, but converting them to action.

During our first few years, we spent no money on advertising and yet had become the #1 share-of-media over our top two competitors combined, were receiving over 1,200 monthly media mentions, were performing nearly 100 monthly media interviews and had been featured multiple times in publications and web properties such as Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Automotive News, CNN, Consumer Reports, NY Times, USA Today and others.  We grew our web traffic from zero to nearly 1M UV’s with no advertising spend.  For more content around our media attention, click here.

So how did we generate brand awareness, credibility and consumer traffic to TrueCar in the early days where cash was scarce?  Initially, it was through a comprehensive industry and consumer public relations effort until we had a credible reputation and the ability to convert and monetize traffic, then we migrated to a paid marketing strategy once we could guarantee a positive ROI.  It’s the first, initial effort of public relations to develop credibility and awareness that I’d like to address in this post.  Why PR first before advertising?  2 primary reasons:  Credibility and Cost.

Credibility.  Advertising by its nature is about self-promotion.  It’s a pitch no matter how you slice it.  Effective media coverage through PR however is about positioning your company as the expert in its field so that the media “filterers” (journalists, editors) are the one’s communicating directly to their readership.  There’s a level of separation that makes the company’s message more credible.

Cost.  Advertising is expensive.  Just ask General Motors who spends in excess of $2B per year on advertising.  A well-executed PR program’s most significant costs are the people that execute the strategy.  There is no comparison between the two on cost alone.

With that as the backdrop, what did we do at TrueCar to develop and execute a successful and low cost PR capability?

1. Determine What Credibility Means in the Context of the Brand Strategy.  For us, it was convincing the auto industry, through data analytics and unique insights, that TrueCar was the “go to” company for what’s happening in Auto for all things pricing.  Tough to do in a world where 80-year old brands have a foothold already in pricing.

2. Formulate a PR strategy that Focuses on Attaining this Credibility.  Our industry strategy for TrueCar was to become the most transparent, trusted and credible source of auto pricing data and auto industry trends, so we targeted publications, social media and influencers in the industry where the topic of vehicle pricing was at the forefront.  And, our consumer strategy was closely aligned on transparency, accuracy and (hopefully) boosted by the industry credibility that we were after.

3. Find the single most influential, credible industry analyst or personality and hire them.  This is the most important takeaway and I don’t know why more startups don’t persist here, especially in cases where industry credibility is correlated to successfully penetrating the consumer market, as is the case with Automotive.  There’s a fallacy that this person, given their stature, is “out of reach” or too expensive to engage.  While that might be true for some, you’d be surprised how energizing it can be for someone who has “done it all” in their industry to have the opportunity to do it again, to leverage their skills and relationships to have a massive impact on a new and emerging brand.   We wanted to first build our Industry credibility, then expand into our consumer strategy, so that’s where we started.  The right candidates have deep media relationships, are performing high volumes of media interviews, have an online social media presence and are viewed as credible industry ambassadors, not spin doctors.  Those folks are out there for every industry, and we hired the best in Automotive.  Jesse Toprak has been the leading Automotive Analyst for 15 years and has performed over 10,000 media interviews during that period.  He was on auto-pilot at his previous role, and was motivated by the challenge of starting from scratch to build our brand around credibility.  No shortage of risk for him personally, but the aspirational fit was there for both of us.

4. Rally the organization around the PR strategy and commit people resources.  Executing a successful PR strategy, one that will be compelling to your target media, requires unique insights that others in the industry are not providing.  That requires lots of data, analysis and product and technology support.  Additionally, because your PR team is externally facing and presumably are experts on trends, they can be important in actually driving product strategy and features.  All of this requires a commitment across the organization to dedicate resources to enable PR – online, offline, social media, daily blogging, outreach, interviews – the list goes on.  Let me be clear, this is hard to do during the early stages where seemingly every person in the company is over-worked and focused exclusively on developing core features and functionality, not crunching data that the PR team can go talk to reporters about.

5. Determine and Track Key Metrics, Measure Results and Adjust.  Some of our key metrics for PR activity include #interviews, #media mentions, #press releases, total consumer reach, unique visitors by media publication, social media followers, UV conversion (to sale) and Revenue.  Key metrics must be tracked!  Which implies there is an ability to actually attribute performance to PR versus some other activity such as viral, marketing, SEO, etc.  We set up unique campaign URL’s in our business intelligence software to track each media campaign separately.

What techniques have you used to build your brand in the early days?

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