Merry. Fucking. Christmas.

I turn into a right bastard around the holidays. I’m depressed, cranky and I have a hair trigger. Christmas is the worst.  I start transforming into the Grinch starts about a week ahead of time — last night I may have referred to a family member as a “fucking retard”. Not to their face, mind you, but I doubt they were confused about my feelings. While everyone else is excited to get more time with their families, I’m trying to hide out in the basement so that I don’t yell at anyone for making noise

I recently started looking at my behavior as it relates to my experiences growing up.  I’ve apparently repressed most of my pre-college memories, but I know that my parents really did their best to raise me.  I also know that my parents fought like mad over the holidays.  I dimly remember a dining room chair exploding into little pieces and lots and lots of screaming.  By the time I was a teenager, we opened presents on Christmas Eve in order to put a bandaid over the annual shouting matches.

So it’s not surprising that I’m miserable this time of year.  I literally have no model for enjoying the holidays.  My parents had rather crappy and abusive childhoods, so there was little interaction with extended family — it was just me and my parents, who were dealing with their own issues.  I don’t know how to sing Christmas songs or make cookies with the kids or even watch Christmas specials while wrapped up in front of the fireplace. Maybe we did those things when I grow up, but all I remember is the fighting.

Someday Royse and Parker will have their own families and the holidays they create will be based upon what I do now.  I doubt I’ll ever be the happy fun Christmas guy, but I can at least create a net neutral holiday for them. Not a lot of the awesome, but not much of the suck, either.  That way, when they have their own families, they won’t have the same emotional hangups I do.  And they’ll be free to model even better times for their own children.

So happy holidays, everyone. You might not be able to make them great, but you can probably make them good enough.

Last year I scared the crap out of a lot of middle school kids who came trick or treating to our house.  This year we decided to mix it up and do something fun, so we’re having a Phineas and Ferb dance party on our front porch.  I can do a passable Doofenshmirtz voice, so I’m dressing up as him (Yeah, I know, he weighs like a buck thirty.  I’m the result of a horrible De-candy-nator accident.). Jen is going as Lindana (in full 80′s one-hit-wonder gear). We’re going to decorate the porch with a mirror ball and a boom box and, most importantly, a bunch of other Phineas and Ferb characters in costume.

I started last night and here’s what I’ve got so far.

I bought a Pico projector last weekend and spent a couple of hours tracking down good images from last year’s halloween episode, along with Max Modem from the Lindana episode.  You can see Candace peeking out on the left — I learned the hard way how hard it is to do precision cuts with corrugated cardboard. Next up, painting all of them tonight / tomorrow night.

I’ll post the final results the day after Halloween along with a quick writeup on the maker steps.

What happens if this is it?

by Eric Marcoullier

Of course, no one actually plays here any more...

While at the gym today, I watched this video of Stephen Hawking addressing TED in 2008. At the very end, Chris Anderson drills into a point Hawking made earlier in his talk:

Chris Anderson: Professor, if you had to guess either way, do you now believe that it is more likely than not that we are alone in the Milky Way, as a civilization of our level of intelligence or higher?

Stephen Hawking: I think it quite likely that we are the only civilization within several hundred light years; otherwise we would have heard radio waves. The alternative is that civilizations don’t last very long, but destroy themselves.

This ties back to a statement that Hawking made earlier, that “our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” This set me thinking about religion and metaphysic and ethics.

One of the common refrains in Western religions is that without a moral absolute delivered form an almighty Creator, everything would devolve into moral relativism, and that way lies anarchy (and abortions). Further, the promise of the paradisiacal afterlife is the ultimate carrot towards good behavior. As a former (and very lapsed) Objectivist, I always thought this perspective was silly because Ayn Rand did a fairly good job of starting with “A is A” and ending with a perfectly reasonable (if emotionally vapid) ethical system.

But hearing Stephen Hawking today led me to a new line of thought.

The biggest problem with this Ecclesiastical perspective is the idea that our world is just the tryouts. It’s the farm team, it’s the shadow plane to the Platonic ideal. For a very large group of people, what we do here and now is only important until we die, at which point we ascend to the place we’ve been trying to get to all along. And to use their line of reasoning, if nothing is important after we die, then long-term planning really doesn’t matter, does it? It’s totally cool to strip mine our small-town diamond because we’ve got a great big Astrodome waiting for us in the sky. Global warming, deforestation, water scarcity… these are just words to fervent believers, because these words don’t matter when we turn to dust.

But what if Stephen Hawking is right? What if we really are the only intelligent race within hundreds of light years? Doesn’t that make our presence in the universe incredibly precious? Shouldn’t that mean that it’s incredibly vital that we act in a way that Does. Not. Fuck. Things. Up. for the generations who come after us? Generations who might continually represent the only intelligent life in the galaxy? There’s obviously a balance to be struck between current need and long-term planning and, if anything, as a card-carrying capitalist I take a fairly balance  approached. But as we continue to debate public policy that has long-term implications for planet Earth, perhaps we should take a moment to question how invested some folks are in our planet’s long-term ability to sustain life.

They may have the coin, but they'll never have the kwan!

My friend Bryce Robert wrote a fantastic article yesterday about Facebook’s new timeline feature and asked the question “who is this new feature really for?” Since I came close to launching a timeline app for Facebook several years ago, I thought I would spell it out clearly.

After leaving Yahoo, I spent six months in the classic “entrepreneur hunting for the Next Big Thing” phase, constantly generating, evaluating and discarding ideas.  One of the ideas I became enamored with was a timeline app, that would be called LifeLine.  The idea was simple — you would enter key events for yourself and tag your friends, creating a personal history.

Since people don’t do a great job of creating structure out of thin air, my onboarding process was a long series of questions:

  • Have you ever bought a car? What was it and when did you buy it? Add a picture?
  • Have you ever bought a house? Where was it? Add a picture?
  • Have you ever been married…

The great thing is that people love to answer questions and create structure when guided.  Every day LifeLine would ask all one of a rotating set of questions that would cover all the important aspects of your life. Over time, I would have a treasure trove of near-real-time data about you.

Selling this data was the business model.  Did you recently buy a car?  I would let the insurance companies know and then they would contact you with insurance offers.  Did you just buy a house?  I bet the home furnishing companies would love to reach out with catalogs.  Is it skeezy hearing it put so bluntly? Absolutely. Is it the core business model of the majority of companies on the web? Absolutely.

The main reason I didn’t launch LifeLine I chose not to build this service when I bumped into Derek Dukes at a party and he told me he was launching Dipity the following day.  I thought the business model was sound; it all came down to building a highly viral service and it didn’t make sense to me to play fast follower to Derek.

This all brings to mind one of my favorite Internet aphorisms: If you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product being sold.

Stealing like an artist (I hope)

by Eric Marcoullier

 

Was your father a thief...

Austin Cleon wrote a blog post earlier this year listing 10 things he wish he had learned in college, much of it centering on how to be creative.  I urge you to go read the post after you’re done here (if you think you’ll forget, just go now; I won’t get mad). I’ve read the post several times and the thing that resonates the most with me is the idea of Stealing Like An Artist.  An artist is the product of her influences, so she should get inspired daily and create her own work building upon what came before.  As a fan of mashups and the whole remix culture, that concept has always resonated strongly with me.

Since selling OneTrueFan a few weeks ago, I’ve been aching to build something with my hands, so after more than 10 years, I’m getting back into stained glass.  The challenge is that I hate most stained glass — it’s all twee flowers and birds of paradise. I like the ecclesiastical windows a lot, but that’s not really appropriate for home (or atheist) use.  In recent years, my passion has been the modern stuff, like Larry Zgoda and Maya Radoczy and even someone like Richard Elliott, who became famous for giant art installations made of reflectors. My favorite artist is Carl Powell, who’s glass work contains boundless amounts of joy and movement and whimsey.

Home for Jewish Parents, Danville CA - 7'x7'

When I decided to get back into stained glass, the style I wanted to pursue was obvious.  Unfortunately, all the available stained glass patterns are that saccharin bullshit. The artists I’m interested don’t make patterns for hobbyists.

So I spent most of my free time last week in Illustrator tracing photographs of Powell and Zgoda’s glass and creating patterns of their work. I had no interest in recreating any of them because my own work won’t come close to the originals and the last thing I want is a shoddy recreation of one of their masterpieces.  But the process of tracing their work was profound; after a while I felt like I had actually internalized some of their design principles.

This week my free time has been split between creating my own patterns in Illustrator and staring at images in my “Inspirations” Drop Box folder.  The image below is the pattern for my first original stained glass design ever, and my first work in a decade.  The inspiration should be obvious, and while it’s clearly not as good as Powell’s work, I’m excited to be taking my first step as an independent artist.

It's a start, yeah? Now I just have to render it in glass.

Next up, I’ll be picking out glass and getting cuts on my fingers again. I can’t wait!

For any of my Bay Area peeps who are interested in learning to make stained glass themselves, I can’t say enough great things about Aanraku Stained Glass in San Mateo.  Jeffrey and Hiroyuki are fantastic teachers.

And lastly, Austin Cleon will be publishing a book early next year expanding on his Steal Like An Artist post. Make sure to pick up a copy when it’s released.

Wait till you see what I have on under this dress!

Since we sold MyBlogLog to Yahoo in 2007, I’ve regularly been asked to advise startups. I’ve agreed several times and I’ve brought on advisors to help with the companies I launched after.  I’ve found the experience to be a mixed bag on both sides of the table. If you’re thinking about becoming or bringing on an advisor, maybe you’ll find this series useful.

Try a 90-day informal arrangement before committing long-term

These days, when I’m approached to advise a startup, if I like the team and the product, I propose the following framework:

  • You have unfettered access to me for the next 90 days
    • I’ll answer all your emails promptly
    • I’m happy to schedule a regular meeting every week or two
  • My job is to provide useful feedback and introductions
  • Your job is to keep me involved
  • If, in 90 days, we’re both still excited and engaged
    • I’ll officially come on as an advisor
    • Send me whatever advising agreement you like

In the majority of cases, the entrepreneur drops off after a couple weeks. Almost always after a month or two. Now maybe this is just because I don’t give useful advice, but I’m thinking it also has something to do with the CEO not having the time to keep me involved.

Having the 90-day informal arrangement means that neither of us have to go through the “it’s not you, it’s me” part of the breakup.  And if the entrepreneur occasionally emails me asking for some one-off advice or introductions, I’m still happy to help.

BEST PRACTICE: Don’t call me an advisor, call me a friend.

Moving forward, I’m thinking about changing my approach and strictly limiting the “advisor” title for business arrangements where I have a significant stake and/or salary.  As I said early on, hiring someone is a sure-fire way to keep them focused on your company, even if it’s only a part-time capacity.

For everyone else, I’ll happily provide help at the drop of a hat, but I won’t sign on as an advisor.  Take me out for coffee (or maybe a nice dinner if you have funding).  Better yet, take me to see a show.

Let’s just be two entrepreneurs bonding over the fact that you have a fantastic product or company and I may have some relevant feedback for you.  I promise I’ll give you the same attention whether you call me a “mentor”, “advisor”, “friend” or “awesome dude”.

BEST PRACTICE: Seek out mentors in addition to advisors.

A mentor is different from an advisor in a couple ways:

  • They’re primarily focused on your personal success
  • They extend beyond the lifetime of any single company
  • They don’t ask for remuneration

Mentors are fantastic because they are long-term resources. Over time, they learn your strengths and weaknesses and can assist you in a highly personalized way.  For instance, I tend to take extremely polarized viewpoints to situations and my personal mentors have been instrumental in saving me from myself on numerous occasions.

Because the relationship is personal, you don’t have to worry about gathering new support each time you start a company.  Mentors have your back at all times.  And because it’s a personal relationship, their not looking for payment.  But don’t be stingey — take your mentors out occasionally and show them they’re appreciated.

Otherwise, manage your mentors like advisors. Put them to work for you, respect their time, act on their advice.

Advisors do it for love

by Eric Marcoullier

How do you get a goth out of a tree? Cut the rope! AMIRITE?

Since we sold MyBlogLog to Yahoo in 2007, I’ve regularly been asked to advise startups. I’ve agreed several times and I’ve brought on advisors to help with the companies I launched after.  I’ve found the experience to be a mixed bag on both sides of the table. If you’re thinking about becoming or bringing on an advisor, maybe you’ll find this series useful.

Advisors are driven by the desire to be helpful

I feel incredibly lucky to have been given great opportunities and counseling from entrepreneurs who came before me.  There’s an obligation to give back that I’m happy to embrace. And like most people, I love to hear myself talk and be made to feel special (Todd says I love this more than most) . Advising magically accomplishes all these things.

But one thing that really deflates my enthusiasm is feeling like all my wonderful advice falls on deaf ears.

BEST PRACTICE: Always find something to act on after talking to an advisor.

One thing I’ve learned from Brad Feld (whom I’m honored to consider a mentor) is to couch my advising as “data, not truth”.  It’s up to the entrepreneur to evaluate the content of my ideas and determine what is relevant to their own unique situation.  But if, after an hour-long, wide-ranging conversation with someone, they can’t find one tiny thing to implement or act upon, I can’t help coming to one of the following conclusions:

  1. The entrepreneur doesn’t value my feedback
  2. The entrepreneur isn’t really listening to me
  3. The entrepreneur isn’t very motivated

None of these make me feel good about the relationship.  The first time this happens, I don’t take it personally.  After all, the entrepreneur is super busy and maybe my advice wasn’t relevant.  But if a pattern emerges, I’ll disengage.

After a conversation, there’s almost always some tiny feature that can be implemented, or tweaked, or acted upon.  I don’t care if it’s as simple as changing the color of a button on your registration page.  Do it, then tell the advisor that you did it.  It makes them feel awesome and motivates them to think about your business all the more.

BEST PRACTICE: Use this same strategy to engage future investors.

When people see their ideas manifested in your product, it gives them an emotional stake and a sense of ownership.  If you talk to a potential investor and you don’t walk away with a half dozen suggestions about your product, they’re probably not a good match to begin with.  If you do get those ideas, do whatever it takes to turn one into a reality and get that investor on the hook emotionally.

My partner Todd is the master of this.  Whenever we’re in an investor meeting, Todd keeps Skype open and will eventually hear an idea that he knows the team can bang out in a few minutes.  At the end of the meeting, Todd inevitably says “Hey, remember what you suggested earlier?” Then he waits a beat, turns the laptop around and says “Were you think about something like this?” It’s magic, baby.

BEST PRACTICE: Recognize that your stock is practically worthless in your advisors eyes.

Given the choice between stock and no stock, I’ll always take the former.  But again, it’s not why I’m advising you.  I’m doing it because I like you, I like your product and hopefully I’ll learn something new in the process.  We know that most companies flame out and we’ve been around long enough to see it happen with our own companies as well as with the people we advise.

We *want* you to succeed and we think that you will, or else we wouldn’t bother advising you.  But at the end of the day, we ascribe pretty much zero value to your stock until you’ve sent us a check after you’ve been acquired.

I bring this up because friction can occur when there is a disconnect between founders (especially first-time entrepreneurs) and advisors.  Yes, you’ve just raised a Series A and suddenly my common stock is worth $50k in fairy gold.  All the above rules still apply — if you don’t keep me engaged, I can’t help you out.  And when your company does hit a home run, I’ll be the first to admit that it had nothing to do with me.

Strontium-90, on the other hand, has a half-life of 28.8 years.

Since we sold MyBlogLog to Yahoo in 2007, I’ve regularly been asked to advise startups. I’ve agreed several times and I’ve brought on advisors to help with the companies I launched after.  I’ve found the experience to be a mixed bag on both sides of the table. If you’re thinking about becoming or bringing on an advisor, maybe you’ll find this series useful.

Advisors usually provide the bulk of their value in the first 30 days 

You’re a young entrepreneur filling out your seed round.  An investor connects you with a friend; you call him up and make the pitch.  He politely declines, then spends a half hour on the phone chatting about your business.  He makes several insightful observations about your business and then offers to connect you to a few more angels he’s friends with, which he does the next day.

If you’re like many new entrepreneurs I know, this is where you send a super-sincere email gushing about the insight you received and how awesome if it would be if he would consider coming on as an advisor.  Don’t be this guy.

It’s really easy to have a great conversation for an hour with just about anyone with an ounce of initiative and a novel idea.  Most seasoned entrepreneurs and businesspeople have a ton of advice that can be broadly applied to any new business idea — most of it now helpfully condensed into the Lean Startup methodology and Brad Feld / Jason Mendelson’s book on venture financing.  We’ve also got enough experience where we can point out some general gotchas and suggest a few people to talk to for additional feedback or investment.

But it’s not an infinite list.  If you come back and talk to me next week, I probably won’t have anyone else for you to talk to; I gave you my list at the end of the first conversation.  I’ve made my introductions and until I meet relevant new people, my Rolodex lies fallow.  And if I don’t have deep relevant domain knowledge and a passion for discussing it, I’m probably not going to be a fount of new ideas for you.

So for now, just send me an email that says you appreciate the time I spent with you and the introductions I made.  Save the advisor request for when we know each other better.

I want you to hit me as hard as you can...

One of the most interesting facets of the whole TechCrunch fiasco is complaints from the editors that they have been ignored by AOL. MG Siegler and Robin Waters both mentioned this in their recent posts and as far back as March, Mike expressed concern that the AOL integration was not going swimmingly.

All this sturm und drang reminds me of my experience after Yahoo acquired MyBlogLog.  And it reminds me of many other tech acquisitions. Flickr? Delicious? Upcoming? Lest you think this is a uniquely Yahoo problem, remember Dodgeball, Jaiku and Slide at Google, Netscape and Bebo at AOL, Dopplr at Nokia, Palm at HP, MySpace at Fox, Skype and StumbleUpon at eBay, Flip at Cisco, Danger at Microsoft… shall I continue? There are plenty of reasons to hold the acquiring companies accountable for these shit shows, but if my own experience is any indication, the acquirees can also shoulder some blame.

Many freshly minted millionaire founders think “If Company X was willing to pay us all this money to join, why the hell won’t they listen to us about <insert gripe here>?!?” For instance, shortly after MyBlogLog was acquired, we had our first engineering hire nixed even though Todd had run a 20-person dev shop for a decade. We were flabbergasted — they could acquire us for millions but not trust us to hire someone?

Here’s the thing — the moment you are acquired you become an employee. Sure, there are a few people in corporate development who still think you are god’s gift to the business, but to everyone else you are simply Employee Number Whatever. Same chain of command, same IT policy, same hiring process. In most large companies, individual mid-level employees do not have the ability to make substantial changes quickly.  Before you dismissively write this all off as bureaucratic bullshit, I’d point you to the three branches of the US government. It’s all about forcing major changes to happen SLOWLY.

As an acquired founder you get to run your product the same exact way that every internally grown product is run. Unless you are brought in at a senior executive level, you are not at the acquiring company to fix their problems or change their processes.  The CEO probably won’t even remember your name in six months. You are not going to get special privileges. You are no longer a beautiful or unique snowflake. That ended when they wired you the check.

This kid has raised $19M for poopybutts.com, btw.

Since we sold MyBlogLog to Yahoo in 2007, I’ve regularly been asked to advise startups. I’ve agreed several times and I’ve brought on advisors to help with the companies I launched after.  I’ve found the experience to be a mixed bag on both sides of the table. If you’re thinking about becoming or bringing on an advisor, maybe you’ll find this series useful.

Advisors only work as hard as a CEO drives them

If you only remember one thing about this article, remember this.  You may harbor fantasies of an advisory board magically grinding out business development introductions while you sleep, like well-heeled Keebler elves, but it ain’t gonna happen for two reasons:

  1. Advisors have their own priorities
  2. Advisors don’t know what you need help with

Your advisor is probably still employed.  She is either an executive at a major company, running her own startup, investing professionally, managing a non-profit… she’s focused on her own goals.  And since she’s been successful, she’s probably old enough to have a family, which is what she’s thinking about when she’s not thinking about her business.  Plus, she advises three other startups.  So the odds are virtually nil that she’s thinking about your company, other than the occasional “I wonder what’s up with YourCo?”.

One way to solve this is to hire her and make your company her primary focus. That would be awesome. But let’s assume for now that you’re not ready to bring on the current SVP Sales for Allied Widgets as your new salesperson.

BEST PRACTICE: Advisors respond best to direct stimuli.

In just about every case that I’ve ever asked for something specific — an introduction, product feedback, executive coaching — my advisors have responded.  And every time I’ve waited for my advisors to come to me bearing self-motivated gifts, I’ve been disappointed, and deservedly so.  If you need something, ask.

BEST PRACTICE: Be very specific in your requests.

Before you reach out to your advisor, take a moment to prepare.  Figure out exactly what you need and how you can make the process as efficient as possible for him.

If you need an introduction, your advisor is going to want to know why you want the connection and he’ll probably ask for a brief paragraph he can forward for context. Don’t make him ask. Just write it up in advance and say “can you please forward this information to so-and-so?”

If you want product feedback, ask specific questions.  Without guidance, your advisor is liable to play with your new release for a few minutes and move on.  In most cases, it’s better to direct him to a specific feature with some added context so he can quickly evaluate and respond.

The same thing with strategy feedback, coaching, whatever… give specific context and ask for specific feedback.  Broad requests that take a lot of ramp up are going to get a vague response, at best.

BEST PRACTICE: Schedule regular meetings with your advisors.

While at Gnip, I asked Mashery’s Oren Michels to be an advisor.  He’s been president, COO and CEO of a host of technology companies and he’s incredibly knowledgable about contracts and fundraising. Plus, we always have a blast at SXSW.  I was honored when he signed on.  Does it surprise you that both times I raised capital for Gnip he didn’t find out until after I had already signed the paperwork?  Do you think Oren might have been useful in helping me negotiate those contracts?

There’s a reason why most CEOs do a crappy job of keeping their advisors in the loop — we’re just as busy as they are.  In the moment, we tend to forget that we have these fantastic resources available.  Before we know it, months have gone by and our advisors have no idea what’s going on with our companies.  They’re no longer in a position to offer help, even if they want to.

Figure out a rhythm that works for both of you and schedule meetings in advance.  The frequency is completely up to you, but it should probably be at least as often as your board meetings.  Take the opportunity to review your business with him and look for ways that he can help.  If you can’t spend 30 minutes once every four-to-eight weeks with someone talking about your company, either your business is in trouble or you’re a bad match for your advisor.  This way, you’ll never have to hear your advisor say “you did what?” again.