My Favorite Things Right Now

Thought I would share some cool stuff thats made its way into my life most recently.  This is a random walk of technology, books, apparel and music.  Take what you like, leave the rest.  Here goes!

Books

  • Born to Run by Chris McDougall.  For those of you that count running/jogging as a hobby, this is a fantastic read.  Very well written non-fiction about the ultra-distance running phenomenon focusing primarily on the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico’s Copper Canyon Region.  Humorous, educational read that inspired the barefoot running movement in the US.
  • The Big Short by Michael Lewis.  Incredible read inside the 2008 mortgage collapse, focusing on the big Wall Street firms, mortgage banks, Moody’s and others involved in the debacle.  Also includes some individual and small firm stories that made the right bets and raked in jaw-dropping profits, in one example 3 guys trading out of their Berkeley house made $80M on a $100,000 investment.  Crazy.
  • The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.  I am just now making my way through this 600-page reference manual that is a result of Tim’s personal 10-year quest to find “For all things physical, what are the tiniest changes that produce the biggest results?”  Pretty incredible claims in this book, many of them counterintuitive but personally experienced by Tim and almost always defended by scientific explanation.  Really interesting stuff especially if you’d like to lose some weight or massively increase endurance or strength by spending the least amount of effort and time to do so.

Technology, Music

  • Vitamix 5200 industrial strength blender.  Renee and I are breakfast smoothie freaks – protein, veggies and fruit blended at supersonic speeds to produce an incredibly healthy meal.  Traditional juicers filter the fiber from the ingredients taking out substantial nutrients.  With the Vitamix, you pile it all in and let the jet engine take it from there.  For $500, this blender should create the most heavenly and healthy smoothie ever.  And it does!  Not to mention the 7-year warranty.
  • Google Reader RSS Feed Aggregator.  After getting to the point of subscribing to way too many blogs and news feeds via email, I’ve now aggregated them all into an automated RSS aggregator and have all of my reading in one view.  Since I use Google for email, calendar and contacts (Gmail), its a natural choice for me.  There’s a ton of options out there for RSS aggregation and reading.
  • Polar RS800CX Multisport w/ GPS wrist computer for running and cycling.  This is a pretty awesome device that measures and tracks just about everything – Heart Rate, Speed, Distance, Route (Google Earth), Calories, and on and on.  It’s a wrist mounted device so you can use it for both running and cycling.  The only downside for cyclists is the inability to program routes and see them before and during your ride (like the Garmin Edge 705), but that’s the tradeoff to get a non-clunky, wrist mounted device.
  • RockMelt social browser.  This product is really cool, particularly if you are an avid user of social media, Facebook and Twitter specifically.  It’s actually an entirely new browser, a replacement for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc. and it rocks!  It functions just as your current browser does, except it integrates your social media applications around the border of the browser.  No need to have a separate tab for Twitter or Facebook, you can see with a glance all of your social media feed information and which of your contacts are online.  There are mobile apps as well so you have a seamless experience no matter where you are and which platform you are using.  A friend of mine just took a leadership role at this company, which recently closed a $30M round of funding from tier 1 VC’s.
  • Turntable.fm shared music experience.  This is a brand new service where you can create your own rooms by music theme, invite your friends to join, and jam out by DJing, searching for and playing your own music.  You can also join other rooms based on the type of music you are in the mood to listen to.  This is an incredibly social music experience, with real-time chat, avatars, points system and just great music.
  • Uber car service in SF and NY.  If you travel to SF, Palo Alto or NY and want a fantastic, hassle free car service (50% premium to taxi fares), download the Uber app and enjoy the experience.  Create your profile with credit card information, then simply request a car through the app.  It will tell you precisely how far away the driver is, provide her name and ratings and when your ride is finished, you jump out no payment or tip required.  Your credit card is charged automatically and receipt emailed to you.  SF is an awful city to hail a taxi, particularly when it rains.  Uber to the rescue!  Watch out for these guys they are about to expand into Seattle, Chicago, Boston and DC.
  • Quora answers everything, and does it intelligently through crowd sourcing.  I’ve been really impressed with the quality of topics, answers and discussion on Quora – a more opinionated but real-time wikipedia.  You can follow topics or people and because answers can be “voted up” by the community, it ensures the most valuable, useful answers are seen first.

Apparel

  • (Near) Barefoot running with Vibram FiveFinger shoes.  After reading Born to Run, I gave barefoot running a go more as an experiment that a convert.  So far its been good and pointing out how under-developed certain muscles, especially calves, have become using cushioned running shoes and (arguably) improper form.  I’m still using a mix of barefoot and traditional running shoes in order to keep my mileage up as I ease into the new process and attempt to avoid injury.  Another “how to” book for barefoot running is The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard.
What are your favorite things right now?

Are You Pulling the Wool Over The Eyes of Your Employees?

Fair warning, this will be a bit of a rant.  There was a story that emerged late last week about how Skype had provisions in their employee stock option agreements that basically rendered stock options worthless for employees.  It spawned a lot of discussion in the media and among bloggers over the weekend, but there were two articles I ran across that gave competing views into the situation:  An employee-centric view and a company “why they did it” view.  Take a moment to get educated.

I’m not going to get mired into the detail of specific employee incidents discussed in these articles.  Rather, I’m focusing on the philosophy of implementing an egregious stock option agreement that provides little to no compensation and ownership value to employees.  And more specifically, doing so when the tech industry norms are vastly different.

In a nutshell, here’s the situation.  Skype’s employee option agreement has a very unusual clause that enables the company to buy back an employee’s options if the employee leaves the company voluntarily or involuntarily.  The buying back of unvested shares upon termination is a standard option agreement clause for most tech companies.  What makes this clause unusual, and reprehensible in my view, is that it just doesn’t cover unvested options, but also vested options.  And here’s the evil kicker – the company has the right to buy back vested shares at the original grant price, not the fair market value that employees presumably contributed to achieving.

There are two problems with this type of agreement that I cannot be convinced are fair and equitable components of tech industry compensation:  1) The company has a right to buy back vested shares upon termination and 2) the Company can buy back vested shares at the original grant price.  This second point is the one that I believe essentially tells employees “Here’s an option grant but if you don’t stay with the company until it sells, regardless of how much value you create, we can terminate the grant.  Oh, and we can fire you before the company sells to ensure the grant is worthless.”

Now, there have been several arguments, although sparse compared to the criticism, in defense of Skype’s treatment of options in their agreement:

  1. Employees should read any agreement before they sign it.  This is a load of crap.  Employees other than the most senior leadership have ZERO ability to negotiate terms in a “standard” company agreement and thus the vast majority of employees have likely never had a lawyer review employment related agreements (confidentiality, non-solicitation, etc.).   The fundamental issue here is not whether an employee should negotiate a better agreement, but rather philosophically how does the company want to incentivize and reward employees, particularly when the industry standard is so different creating a misleading view of how a standard option agreement behaves.  In a world where there is such a deviation from the norm, the company has an obligation to ensure employees fully understand how deviating agreements work.
  2. Skype’s investors are Private Equity and not Venture Capital.  Huh?  What does this have to do with the fundamental notion that employees, not investors, are the primary asset that creates value in ANY company, regardless of who the investors are.  Early stage, later stage, turnaround, it doesn’t matter.  This point does not negate the company’s responsibility to provide clarity to employees about how compensation-related agreements work.
  3. If an employee voluntarily leaves, then they don’t deserve to keep any options.  Again, this is just not the right thing to do.  By way of example, let’s say I joined my company and was granted 40,000 shares vesting over a 4 year period and at a grant or strike price of $0.10, representing the Fair Market Value of the shares at that time.  After two years, the company has made progress and raises capital at a per share price of $0.50.  So, there’s been $.40 of value created during my time at the company.  Now I decide to leave.  Since I worked for two years, I will have vested in 20,000 shares and presumably I’ve contributed in creating that value – if I haven’t, then the company should have fired me a long time ago.  But they didn’t.  The value of my 20,000 vested shares is now $8,000 (20,000 x $0.40 per share).  Under the Skype option plan, the company essentially has the right to terminate all options, so I leave with no stock, despite the fact that I’ve vested in half my position.  Poof, no options!  My belief, and the belief of most companies, is that the employee should have the right to purchase vested options at the original grant price upon leaving the company.  So I pay the company $2,000 and they issue me a stock certificate for 20,000 shares that I take with me.   Again, this is a philosophical debate – I believe in making all employees owners and rewarding people for contributing to increasing corporate value.  Just because someone decides to leave for personal, professional, health or any other reason doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to capture the value increase.

What’s the bottom line?  As a leader in your organization, what value do you place on people, transparency and sharing value creation with those most responsible for creating that value?  Companies have a responsibility for transparency and integrity towards employees.  Create and enforce whatever agreements you like, but be overtly educational about it, particularly in instances where your policies deviate substantially from standard industry practice.  This is where Skype failed in my view.

Looking for Funding? Try AngelList

I recently attended a talk on Angel investing given by Brad Feld and David Cohen at the Boulder TechStars Bunker.  One of the challenges I’ve been unable to get my head around as a prospective startup investor is how do I get access to the most promising startups?  All of the “high profile” startups that are started by the most accomplished entrepreneurs are almost impossible to get access to.  There’s a small community of well known Angels and entrepreneurs that circle these startups and get first dibs at seed level funding.  Makes sense.  If I’m starting a company, I want “smart” money in my deal.  Not just cash, but cash from accomplished business builders and investors who have a track record of helping companies be successful and generating a return on their investment.

So the question is, as an unknown investor with some success starting and building companies, how do I get access to the better deals?

Enter AngelList, an online marketplace for startup entrepreneurs and prospective investors to connect started by serial entrepreneur Naval Ravikant.  Here’s how it works:  Startups can register and create a listings page that contains their product, screenshots, video, team and advisors.  What really makes it interesting is that you can see which prospective investors are “following” the company and which are “endorsing” the company.  Investors must also register and be “qualified”.  To be qualified, an investor will be evaluated one of two ways, either by how many current community investors are Twitter followers or by having a certain number of current investors “endorse” you as someone they would trust and co-invest with.  This qualification process I believe gives the community credibility and its working based on the list of over 2,000 incredibly accomplished investors and entrepreneurs listed on the site.  The latest, unverified stat I heard was that AngelList was adding 20-40 startups per day.

Now, does AngelList by itself give me access to the most high profile deals?  No, but it sure does begin to provide transparency and level the playing field.  Gone are the days when prominent VC’s had proprietary access to deal flow.  Now everyone – entrepreneurs, Angels and VC’s – has to be scrappy and compete.

This level of market transparency is also great for startup entrepreneurs.  They now have access to a broad range of investors and in this era of AngelList and social media, you can get to almost anyone if you can efficiently articulate your pitch and cut through the volume of social media noise.  But access is no longer the issue.

The final implication to consider from this increasingly transparent and open investment environment is on valuations.  I’ve said before that we are not in a “bubble” similar to high-flying times of 1999, but pre-money valuations right now are pretty darn high I think due to numerous factors but certainly at least two:  1) huge success stories like Facebook, the LinkedIn IPO, Zynga, Groupon, etc. have investors over-exuberant about finding the “next big stock” and 2) an increasingly transparent market (via AngelList, Second Market, Sharespost and social media in general) is allowing anyone to invest in startups, creating more demand and driving prices up.

It will be interesting to see if the market becomes more transparent and open, if valuations will continue to rise, stabilize or fall and what effect a fall in valuations might have on the supply/demand equation for startup financing.

Finding Inspiration and Amazement

Whenever I need a little inspiration or just want to experience pure amazement, I sometimes turn to TED.  In the organization’s own words, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading” and it doesn’t disappoint.  Because TED started in 1984 as a conference-only format that brought the world’s foremost innovators and big thinkers from around the world, exposure to its content was extremely limited by invitation only to those who had been incredibly successful in their field.  Some might argue elitist.  With conference attendance/membership fees ranging from $7,500 – $125,000, its not a hard argument to make.

However, since 2006 TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) has been posting its speaker talks online with free access for all.  Today, you can access over 800 speakers and nearly 1,000 talks from incredibly inspiring individuals speaking on jaw-dropping topics (their word, not mine, you can actually sort talks by “jaw dropping”) that you likely know nothing about but that will captivate you because of the depth of knowledge and passion exhibited by the speakers.  For me, many of these speakers have a way of extracting me out of my tactical day, moving me beyond what I know or care about on a daily basis into a new and interesting worlds 20 minutes at a time.  It’s pretty cool.

Here are a few talks to get started that might not be as distributed as talks by the President, Bill Gates or others of high prominence and influence:

  • William Kamkwamba:  How I Harnessed the Wind.  At 14, in poverty and famine, a Malawian boy built a windmill to power his family’s home
  • Appreciate music?  Even if you don’t, these are amazing talks by Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist, who Shows Us How to Listen and Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, on Music and Passion.
  • Jeremy Rifkin on The Empathic Civilization, using a novel animation technique to narrate a philosophy on how and why we relate to one another the way we do and implications for our future
  • Bill Ford:  A Future Beyond Traffic Gridlock and the future of mobility.

What are your favorite inspirational, amazing talks by others on TED or elsewhere?

Life is Good

There are a lot of “life events” about to occur in my life.  Specifically,

  • A new baby to arrive any day now.
  • A professional transition, to where has yet to be determined.
  • A probable relocation to a new city.

Many would say “Wow, you must be stressed, that’s too many “life events” happening at the same time”.  In fact a quick Google search of “life events” yields pages of articles, advice and tests associated with the stress of certain life events.  According to one test, I have had 9 life events in the past 12 months and registered an off the charts score of 302, which gives me an “80% susceptibility of stress-related illness”.  Phooey, I’ve never been healthier.

The reality is I’m filled with excitement about the various adventures and changes that are taking place.  Life is good.  Baby G is about to enter this world and join our family, it’s an exciting new chapter beginning in my life.  And while I will deeply miss TrueCar, a company I helped create from the ground floor, and the incredible team of people I’ve partnered with for the last 4 years, I’m excited about getting engaged in a new opportunity and new challenges.  Finally, while we’ve enjoyed a great quality of life in Los Angeles and may stay awhile longer, we are considering a handful of other markets where we would love to live and be closer to family.  Priorities after all.

Sure, there’s plenty of uncertainty in our future, but as an entrepreneur I’m used to uncertainty, ambiguity and chaos – the only thing certain about a startup is that it’s wrought with uncertainty!  For me, its all about perspective.  A narrow view of all these events could yield thoughts of concern and unending questions of “what if”.  What if I can’t find a fulfilling job?  What if I can’t provide for my new family?  What if we move to a new city and hate it?

A healthier, broader perspective would lead to appreciation of my current situation and a focus on creating the outcomes I want in each of these life events.  The reality is this – My family is not going to be homeless or live in a shelter as nearly 1.6M did in 2009 in the U.S. alone.  My family will not go hungry or live in extreme poverty.  We will not face genocide or live in fear of our lives as so many do in this world.  Our child will have healthcare and an education.  And Renee and I will have each other if everything else fails.  I’ll repeat, its all about perspective.

I’m happy and probably more relaxed and excited about my future than I have been in some time, certainly over the past year.  And right now I’m focused solely on welcoming Baby G into our family and spending a few months being a new father.  Everything else can wait.

I Rest My Case, This is War

6/16 UPDATE:  Here’s a really informative graphic as to what’s happening in the U.S. related to skilled workforce requirements.  The most compelling points?  1) By 2015, 60% of the new jobs will require skills possessed by only 20% of the population, and 2) In 1991, by contrast, less than half of the jobs in the U.S. required skilled workers.

______

One of my recent posts discussed the war for engineering/developer talent, particularly in the Bay Area.  It’s getting worse and I just don’t see how it is sustainable.  Here are some recent additional data points related to the overwhelming demand for engineering talent:

  • A recent Techcrunch article discussed some analysis by TopProspect, an emerging online recruiting destination, that shows analytically who is winning among the top technology companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zynga and others.
  • Check out this blog post by Gordon Hempton on “What It’s Like to Be Recruited“.  It details Gordon’s experience of posting his resume and subsequently receiving 266 emails and 96 voice mails from companies and recruiters, most of whom ignored his very specific job request for mobile development and instead were recruiting him for a broad range of development positions and platforms.

What is clear from this and other analysis is that we are in a zero sum game right now.  Meaning, there are simply not enough quality engineers entering the market to come close to the demand, there’s a nearly fixed pool of talent trying to supply both incredible existing company growth and the startup ecosystem.  The result is an all out war, including underhanded PR stunts, espionage and poaching that results in some companies winning (Facebook, Zynga, LinkedIn and Groupon) and others losing (Google, Microsoft, EBay and Yahoo) in talent acquisition.

I’ll refrain from calling this a talent bubble, as I hate the term bubble for what’s happening in tech right now – it brings back too many bad memories from 1999/2000 when this term was coined and was far more appropriate.  Because I went through the original bubble, I know what is happening now is vastly different.  We are investing in real companies now.  Sure, valuations are high, but newly funded businesses for the most part have real products and customer traction which was not the case a decade ago.

However, much of the talent population, engineers in particular, are too young to have been through the 1999 bubble, so I worry about soaring egos, mercenary behavior and lack of perspective which defined attitudes in 1999.  Engineers were hiring their own agents back then.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Young guns getting constant calls from recruiters, offers to leave their current positions for 25+% compensation and perk increases, which they can repeat from employer to employer.  Tempting, right?

I gotta believe that the demand/supply equation will balance itself, it always does.  But how long will it take?  To the engineers I say good for you, take advantage of the opportunity while it exists, but be careful.  Things have a way of coming back to center.  Put value in building great product, team loyalty and product ownership in addition to your career path and compensation.  See your work through.

Fortunately, this is exactly what I’m seeing at least in the engineers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.  Motivations seem much broader today than they were 10 years ago and attitudes and perspectives towards what is happening in the talent marketplace seem much more balanced, which is refreshing.

Why is this?  I think its because the role of the engineer has changed from pure coding and taking orders from business folks to now having a deeper role in product development and far more empowerment around solving technical problems.  With the proliferation of technology platforms and languages, there are many ways to solve complex technical challenges and the engineers are leading these efforts, they are closest to the product and thus enjoy increasing levels of autonomy in their work.

It’s a great time to be an engineer!  And a frustrating time being a company trying to find the best ones.

Travel Lockdown

Now that Renee is nearly 36 weeks pregnant, I just completed my last travel until after the baby is born.  I’ve been traveling incessantly over the past year, particularly over the past 6 months to/from our San Francisco office.  Lucky for me, most of my travel has been “easy” with direct and short flights.  I was reviewing my TripIt account this morning, here are my travel stats for the past 12 months:

  • 32 separate trips; 21 of them since January 1
  • 25 business trips, 7 personal trips
  • 95 nights sleeping away from home; 127 days gone
  • 66 individual flight legs; 132 takeoffs/landings
  • 72,227 miles flown
  • 16 unique cities visited; 3 countries

I’m looking forward to having more time and energy over the coming weeks to read, write, work and help Renee as we prepare for the arrival of Baby G.

 

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