At Sheryl Sandberg’s talk the other week, she asked the audience a question from her book: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
It’s a great question, and one about which I’ve been thinking since. Am I afraid? If so, of what am I afraid?
Coincidentally, a friend of mine is a successful VC and has decided to step back and instead pursue a career path in executive coaching. Using a framework and methodology from Harvard, I’m the first beta customer. The point of the sessions is to release someone’s full potential by identifying and then overcoming your greatest personal fears. We’ve only met up twice so far, but it’s been pretty cool.
What’s particularly interesting is that I’m starting to realize that my biggest fear, deep down and which took some unearthing, is to avoid a rough five-year patch in my life starting in 2nd grade.
You see, we had left the U.S. to move back to Indonesia, but shortly thereafter, my mother became very ill and almost died a few times in front of my eyes (her kidneys had failed, which led to numerous complications). My sister and I were living with a childless aunt who didn’t have a clue about parenting and was pretty harsh.
We were enrolled in a local school, where our American accents made us seem foreign. The culture shock was insane: brutal heat and humidity, no air conditioning, insane traffic, and social customs far different from the inner-city world of Brooklyn.
After a few months, we then moved back to the U.S. so that my mother could get better medical care. My parents spent a lot of time away from us while at the hospital, whilst yet another childless-and-harsh aunt took care of me and sister.
So, clearly, our world had changed drastically. My mother was the life of the party, cooked like a fiend and kept the house neat and bright. As she struggled for her life, and later, went through dialysis treatments to keep her alive but depleted and depressed, our home became quiet, we ate a lot of junk food, and the house was a pigsty.
Our lives were in a holding pattern, and disaster always seemed to loom around the corner. My mother frequently went to see her doctors, and you never knew if the latest blood test or examination would show a worsening condition or hint at end-of-life. The uncertainty was pretty constant and dis-comforting.
I remember as a child thinking to myself that I better shape my future. In third grade, for example, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. It sucked. But, I didn’t want to go without, and I thought, “Well, who else is going to cook it if I don’t?” Did I really want take-out, junk food or frozen food for Thanksgiving dinner?
Thankfully, things changed when my mother received a kidney transplant, but since donor kidneys have a limited half-life, she was always worried that her health would go again. Life always felt tense and precarious to me as a child.
I recently spoke to my sister about the old days. She said, “It seemed like we were breathing in Death wherever we were. It was always so close and around us all the time.”
Perhaps it’s why I work a lot and have a sense of urgency. I’ve seen that bad things can happen to good people. Time is precious.
It’s a good thing that I made friends easily, for that let me play at other people’s houses and see brighter households. I encountered parents who went to their children’s sports games and practices, asked about their grades, and seemed really interested in their kids’ lives.
I saw home-cooked meals and clean homes. I saw stability. I’m sure those families had flaws, too, but to me, they seemed like glimpses from a Norman Rockwell painting, like the one above.
And, all that is what I wanted for my future children.
I’m not sure how else these personal experiences have shaped me, as I’ll find out more in the coming sessions with my friend. And, I know that sharing all of this personal stuff might be TMI for some of you. But, I think a first step in overcoming a fear is to name it and put it out there.
And, I’ve just done that. I’m very grateful to my friend.
(This is a re-post of a blog entry I wrote a year ago):
This is a hard post to write. Today is May 12. It is the day of my mother’s birthday. She also died, at age 60, on May 12. That day also happened to be Mother’s Day. It was a difficult day with too many coincidences.
Soon after she passed away, I was at the funeral home. My mom kept in shoe boxes every greeting card my sister and I had ever given her. She had asked my sister that the boxes be placed in her casket after her death. I didn’t know about either the boxes or her request, until after my mother died.
And so, there I was, waiting for the funeral director, going through card after card as I relived past decades. There were hand-drawn cards from our youth, with unsteady writing and crayon pictures. There were also the polished store-bought cards I had sent as an adult. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. Too many memories. In shoe boxes.
The director came up to me. I stood up and handed the boxes to him. Giving away those cards was hard.
Afterwards, I drove back from the funeral home, and I thought about many things. In the silence, I thought about how my mother didn’t want to emigrate to the U.S. and leave her family, friends and culture. I remembered the very hard life we had when we first moved here with just $1,500. I remembered well our dilapidated apartment in a beaten-down part of Brooklyn. But, in the end, my mother persevered. She wanted a better life for her children.
As I drove, I regretted that I had never thanked my mother for moving to the U.S. It was a long drive.
Growing up, my mother used to say to me: “Please work hard at whatever you do for a living.” It was her polite way of saying: “I’ve given up a lot so that you might have more–so, don’t waste my sacrifice.”
Why do I write this? First, I think many VCs like what they do because we really identify with people who want to chase the American Dream. I definitely do.
To me, being a VC is not just a job. It’s personal.
Second, I find that many entrepreneurs can point to a person, who unwittingly planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in them early in life. I have met with probably over 5,000 founders in my venture capital career. They come from many backgrounds and areas of life. Not everyone shares why they are starting a new company, but when they do, the stories are fascinating. I find that these intensely personal “drivers of drive” are very inspiring.
I’d like to close with two last items. First, if you’re an entrepreneur, I’d love to hear about why you are one. You can always get a job working for someone else, but yet, you’ve decided to start something new. Why?
Second, to my mother, I hope this somehow gets to you: a very belated and deeply-felt thank you….
I’m home alone with the children this weekend, as my wife is out of town. What I thought was seasonal allergies has instead become a full-blown cold. I don’t feel well at all.
I’ve cancelled one of the kids’ weekend activities, but I will still be driving them around to some sports lessons this morning and am in charge of their meals.
Now, I’m lucky. These are “first-world problems,” I know. If I don’t have the energy to cook, I just call a pizza place or a restaurant delivery service. We have the money to do so.
This experience, though, makes me wonder as to how single parents do this job, day after day. And, if the single parent is working at a series of minimum wage jobs, how do they keep their personal insanity and create a great homelife for their kids? My guess is that many don’t.
So, here’s a personal nod to single moms and dads everywhere. I do not know what you’re going through. But, I want to say that I admire your mental toughness. I hope your children are showing their gratitude to you. I hope you hang in there.
One of our investors recently mentioned to me the difference between “orthogonal” and “linear” thinking.
By the former, I think of it as: multi-dimensional, creative, having disruptive potential. By the latter, I think of: logical, incremental, thoughtful (but almost obvious).
I think entrepreneurs are predominantly orthogonal thinkers. My partners and I often mention how entrepreneurs truly do see the world differently. They see the same pieces of information that the rest of the world does, but for some reason, they’re able to project further into the future and see potential that others cannot.
The challenge with backing entrepreneurs is that the orthogonal point of view can often create blind spots and irrational exuberance So, as a VC, you have to work hard at enabling entrepreneurs to “go for it,” but at the same time, give advice as to when you think they’re going off the reservation.
Believe it or not, VCs have very little day-to-day power. We can influence people and situations, but we aren’t at the companies every day. Sure, we can give up on companies and force a shut down, or we can fire people (I call these the “nuclear options”). But, you in practice rarely use those options without the entrepreneur’s consent. There needs to be a lot of trust there in the relationship.
It’s ironic, but venture capital means you have power but that you rarely use it. You really in the end have to let entrepreneurs do what they want. And, if they fail, you have to give a helpful ear and give them a hand. And, when they succeed, you hope they stay humble and hungry.
We had our first annual New England VC Association (NEVCA) awards ceremony (called The NEVYs, about which I wrote previously). It was insanely joyous. I have a hangover but am still smiling.
I love working with people on ideas that matter. It’s awesome to see teamwork originate and execute such a fantastic event.
I remember a brainstorm session during which C.A. Webb, Chris Sheehan, Stephen Kraus and I discussed what events we could do for the start-up ecosystem. Frankly, I didn’t do much. But, I did voice a strong opinion that it would be lame to do anything formal, stuffy or boring. I was hoping we could do something really unifying, energizing and fun.
So, Stephen came up with the idea for an awards ceremony and a team comprised of C.A., entrepreneurs and VCs worked together. Here’s what C.A. wrote earlier today to the NEVCA Board:
Thanks to Steve for developing and pushing for the idea and leading the committee over these last 4 months. To [Mike Troiano] for his expert crafting of the message, design and strategy. And to [David Beisel] for contributing great thinking to our committee. These guys put in some serious time to make it great–as did Fred Destin, Michelle Dipp and Bob Hower in particular so please thank them when you see them. And I continue to marvel that [Casey Hogan] is just 21 and in college…we could not have pulled off this even without her.
I’m sure dozens of people worked on this project, and I’m sorry that I don’t know everyone by name. And, amazing sponsors helped support this event (see below).
I love this town. I love our start-up community. Last night, we as a group of entrepreneurs, VCs and service providers, truly were One Team.
Today was our VC firm’s “annual meeting,” and it is one of my favorite days of the year. It’s an in-person meeting whereby we gather with our investors to update them on our companies.
I learn a lot at these meetings. We have investors who manage huge pools of capital, and some used to manage endowments at Yale, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. Others invest on behalf of large retirement plans. It’s a sophisticated group.
Well, one of them shared with me a concept called “Business Love.” He said that the investment managers who tend to do the best for them are the ones with Business Love. I had no idea what he was talking about, and so, I asked him to elaborate.
Here’s what he meant:
- Members of those firms really respect and like each other. They’re very tight. In fact, they love each other
- They have a sense of mission. They want to make money, but that’s not the most important driving force
- How they treat each other spills over to how they treat their entrepreneurs and investors
Now, you may think of all this as hokey. But here’s this individual’s track record investing in VC and private equity managers: his performance is ranked #1 in the world, according to a third party. So, he’s got tons of street cred.
I think culture is a fascinating topic. We’ve always thought at Kepha that firm culture is everything, which is why we have Operating Principles. We wrote down our Principles to create a positive work environment, selfishly, for ourselves. We never expected it, though, to be a driver of superior financial results.
I’m going to think a lot about Business Love, and I’m going to look out for it at our companies. Pretty cool concept.
Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year. It’s the day of our firm’s “Annual Meeting.” It’s when we get together with our investors and report on how we are doing.
Most VC firms do the same thing. We rent a meeting room at a hotel and give a presentation on how our investments are doing. Most VC meetings feature a portfolio company speaker, and a networking event with portfolio companies. We pretty much do the same thing.
The reason I like this day is that it’s always a pleasure to see our investors. It was very big of them to support a one-person VC firm in 2007, and now that we’ve raised two funds, they’ve bet on us twice. There’s always a genuine and supportive vibe in the group when we meet, and I’m so grateful to them for supporting us.
As I’ve written before, in a series of posts, VC is a trust business. It’s very moving personally to know that investors trust us with their capital. It’s very motivating to know that they bet on us as a start-up when the firm just got going.
So, tomorrow, is a special day for me. Our team here feels tremendous obligation to our investors. We want to do well and thank them with great financial results.
I often tell our portfolio company founders the following: at Kepha, we’re playing a 20-year game.
I think having a long time horizon affects what we do, why we do it, and how we behave. It sets a very high bar to which we aspire. It’s not always easy, and we don’t often hit those ideals. But, we certainly try to.
Here’s how a long time horizon affects how we work: we’re OK if entrepreneurs fail, as long as they don’t lie to us. We know that most VC-backed companies do poorly. With its 33% success rate, VC is a lot like baseball, as I’ve written in the past. It’s all about home runs. So, we’re OK if entrepreneurs “strike out.” But, what we want to do is have earned the right to work with them again.
In one example, we worked with an entrepreneur on two seed ideas, neither of which got anywhere. But, we introduced him to a third opportunity because we really believed in him. That one is now doing well. Eric and I identified this person as someone with whom we want to work for 20 years. The first two seeds failed because of the market and not because of any shortcomings in the entrepreneur.
Having a long-time horizon also encourages us to say the hard things, rather than keeping quiet and writing off an entrepreneur in our minds.
For example, I yesterday had a tough conversation with one of our founders. I told him that we thought his company’s progress seemed slow, but that we wanted to help. That tough topic led to a very honest and very valuable exchange. I said that since we wanted to work with him for another 20 years, we needed to tell him what we really thought. It ended up being a very awesome conversation, and I feel more aligned than ever with this start-up.
Having a long time horizon can make for tough situations, but it’s how I want to live my life.
Today has been very busy. Frankly, it’s nice to have a normal day, after last week’s bombings, anxiety, and jubilation.
I also received the nice picture below, which reminded me of life before the attacks:
A few weeks ago, I decided to give away Red Sox tickets through a lottery (more here). One recipient was a veteran, and the other, was a family facing some hard times.
Regarding the latter, the mother was nice enough to send me the above picture of her son at Fenway Park. I had arranged for him and his father to get a tour and be on the field during batting practice.
[My son] had the time of his life last night. He loved the tour. He even caught a foul ball. Here is a picture of him.
I love this kid’s smile. I’m hoping he now knows that strangers can care.
As an entire city, we in Boston experienced that last week. Strangers killed strangers. So, then, it was fitting that strangers helped other strangers get to the emergency room after the bombings. And, 9,000 troopers and police raced around to find terrorists to protect citizens whom they didn’t personally know. We tried to balance, as strangers, bad deeds with good ones.
I think there’s something very powerful when we can show kindness to others. For me, after such an insane week here in Boston, it feels great to give someone joy.
Thank God. It’s over. The bombers have been caught.
It’s early Saturday morning. For the first time since Monday’s bombing, I woke up with peace and joy. I’ll always remember last night’s spontaneous jubilation in the streets, and the rousing applause and cheers the police received. Here’s an incredible (and short) video, which a friend shared on Facebook:
I also still shake my head in disbelief. How lucky am I that my youngest child and I didn’t linger in Boston on Marathon Day? Did I just witness an episode of the TV show “24″? Was all that real: bombings, carjacking, a city locked down, copters loudly circling two miles from our house, gun battles amidst tossed grenades in the streets, etc.? Too insane.
Yesterday, with our town in lockdown, was a long day (more here). It was quite an experience to hear voices on the Boston Police scanner become more subdued as troopers began their 18th straight hour of duty.
But, they kept at it. True grit.
I’m immensely grateful to the police. How to buy drinks for 9,000 brave men and women? What incredible fortitude to go into house after house knowing there could be a well-armed terrorist there to ambush you?
Too much to fathom, too grateful to say much more.
So, I end with this: God bless America, and let freedom ring! #BostonStrong
We are only two miles away from where the second suspect may be hiding. You can hear the helicopters overhead.
I woke up at 5.30 am ready to start my day and was shocked to read that our entire area is in lockdown mode. I’m listening to the Boston police scanner and monitoring Twitter. What’s happening right now is too surreal to articulate.
Since all schools and businesses are closed, and meetings have been cancelled, we are all huddled at home, monitoring the news and also trying not to think about near misses. For example, a close friend of ours is usually on the same street block during the time where/when the MIT security officer was shot last night. Her daughter dives at MIT, and she parks on that same street to pick her up–and, they often walk around afterwards to get a snack.
It’s a truly eerie time.
I’m grateful to the 9,000 people out there looking for the second suspect and who are risking their lives to do so.
Here’s a helpful summary (from entrepreneur Wayne Chang) of what’s happened so far as of 6.50 am:
Quick recap (pt 1):- 7-Eleven robbery- MIT officer fatally shot- MBTA officer in severe condition- Mercedes stolen
— Wayne Chang (@Wayne) April 19, 2013
Quick recap (pt 2):- Firefight with explosives in Watertown- Suspect #1 had explosives strapped to chest, detonated when detained
— Wayne Chang (@Wayne) April 19, 2013
Quick recap (pt 3):- Police, SWAT, DHS, etc set up perimeter, with Watertown Mall as command center.- Waited for daylight for advantage.
— Wayne Chang (@Wayne) April 19, 2013
Quick recap (pt 4):- Motion sensor went off at 100 Talcott Ave. Suspected safe house.- Ongoing street by street, house by house sweep.
— Wayne Chang (@Wayne) April 19, 2013
Quick recap (pt 5):- Public transit shut down.- All res in Boston & surrounding cities to remain indoors.- All businesses shut down.
— Wayne Chang (@Wayne) April 19, 2013
It’s the day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I’m trying to do business as usual, but it’s not that easy.
My youngest child and I were in Boston yesterday for the festivities. It would have been very easy to ask, “Hey, do you want to cheer the runners at the finish line?” It’s something I’ve done in years past.
I’m thinking a lot about the families affected by the blasts, and it’s very difficult. The local media, both print and radio, are filled with voices both somber and enraged. As Brad Feld posted today, I too shed tears.
I used to work and live in the area where the bombs were. I go there for business meetings and events quite often. The whole area is in lockdown mode.
I’m grateful that first responders immediately jumped into action to protect and save (the above photo was taken right after the first blast). I’m grateful that the medical tent was so close to the finish line, and that many of the world’s best hospitals are in Boston.
I hope whoever planned these attacks will be caught soon. I hope they realize that nearly all of the non-professional runners in the marathon run to raise money for various charities. In other words, the runners weren’t running just for themselves.
I hope the perpetrators know that the attack happened on Patriots’ Day in Boston, which commemorates the start of the American Revolution. In Boston, that day is a celebration, meant to remember freedom and a fight against tyranny.
Clearly, that fight continues now. So, on this day, we are all Patriots, and we are all Bostonians.
Please consider giving to the victims and their families. The tech community, via Fundraise.com, has set up a campaign here. I just gave, and please do the same. It may not seem like a lot, but the kindness of strangers, a sign of real love, will mean much to these families.
I blogged earlier in the week that I was lucky to get two Red Sox tickets, and that I wanted to give them away to a family in financial need or to a veteran. I also put up a post on Craigslist.
After 1 hour, I deleted the Craigslist post. I had quickly received over 30 requests, some of which were comments to the original blog post (see here). Frankly, I was touched by the many stories of hardship, but also, admired their perseverance. This motivated my wife and me to donate some of our personal tickets, so that we could give away two sets.
We also decided that a lottery would be the best way to assign the tickets. I’m happy to announce that one winner is a veteran from southeastern Massachusetts (photo above), and here’s what he wrote:
I’m a Marine and Army veteran with time served in Iraq. Been a long time since I’ve been to a Red Sox game. Got out of the Army in 06 due to a disability and moved back to southeast MA in 2011. Thanks.
The second winner is a working parent, who wrote this about her son (photo above):
I live in Arlington public housing. My son is a very sports minded boy. He loves all sports and can talk sports to anyone and just about any sport. My husband has had a heart attack and has a defibrillator and pacemaker and stent in place. He is unable to work. With all the medications he is on we find it hard to do anything extra with our boys. I do work full time and do my best to keep everyone happy at home. My older son would be so excited to go to a red sox game. Something he has never done. Go Sox! Thanks for your time.
I’m hopeful that the tickets will spread joy.
I normally don’t go to Red Sox games during the work week, but I try to make an exception during the Home Opener. It’s a fun time.
This year, I brought with me as a guest a religious brother, who is a life-long Sox fan and normally couldn’t afford to go to the game. It was a fun game, particularly because he enjoyed it so much. It reminded me of how fun it is to give and not just receive.
Coincidentally, I was at a breakfast gathering today, at which a member of the Red Sox front office spoke. He gave me two tickets for the April 22 game vs. the Oakland A’s. The seats are in the Grandstand 19 section, which means they’re behind home plate.
I’d like to give away the tickets and spread some good cheer. Ideally, the recipient would be a veteran or a person who normally would find the game a financial stretch.
So, if you or someone you know would like the tickets, please explain why below in the comments section of this post. I’ll read the comments and inform the winner on Friday.
What a great talk today by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg! If you missed it, you can catch the whole video at the bottom of this post or by clicking here (please listen to C.A. Webb’s opening comments, and feel free to ignore my brief appearance).
The New England VC Association hosted the event, and as I’ve written before, C.A. made it happen. 500+ folks were packed in the room (unfortunately, another 540 folks were on the wait list–this event sold out in 8 hours!). There was a ton of eagerness and energy there when I walked in.
I was really impressed with Sheryl’s message and how she delivered her points with insights and humor. As I’ve written in the past (see here), the lack of senior female business leaders is an issue that concerns me, and Sheryl really laid out the root causes. I’ve read her book, but it was really awesome to hear her speak in person.
Another point: it was a great day for the entrepreneurial community. So many people pulled together to make this event:
- C.A. raised the money to underwrite the event, and partnered with MITX and TechStars. She attracted a great list of sponsors in just one morning of intense phone calls after getting off a flight from the U.K.: Silicon Valley Bank, Cooley, KPMG, Hubspot, Brightcove, BzzAgent, Communispace, Digitas, InkHouse Media + Marketing, Nanigans and Pearl Meyer
- Some individuals agreed to financially “back stop” the event, in case the fundraising fell short
- Brightcove streamed the event live
It was a fun, energizing and uplifting morning.
Thank you, Sheryl, for squeezing us in as one of the 20 speeches you’re giving in 12 days!