A Beautiful Continuum

The first time I met Natty Zola was in the old Techstars bunker back in the summer of 2009. He and his co-founder Nate Abbott had recently started a company called Everlater and were going through the Boulder Techstars program. They told me their story about chucking their Wall Street jobs, traveling around the world together and moving back home to Boulder (where they’d been best friends since kindergarten) to start Everlater.

The origin story of Everlater (anagram for Traveler) was that Nate and Natty grew frustrated during their travels that there really wasn’t a good platform to share travel experiences in real time with friends and family back home. They taught themselves how to code, built an elegant site which encapsulated areas for journaling, photos, maps etc., and started building the company.

I knew during our first meeting that I wanted to invest. Their enthusiasm was infectious and Natty & Nate were learning machines. The experience of being involved in building Everlater with these two is one of the truly memorable and gratifying chapters of my career. Ultimately, AOL acquired the company and Nate & Natty took on senior product roles at Mapquest. Here’s a fantastic short video of their journey from inception to acquisition.

 

Two years ago, we were looking for a new Managing Director of our Techstars Boulder program and Natty immediately jumped to mind. He’d been through the gauntlet as an entrepreneur, spent a few years at a large tech company working on product, was born and raised in Boulder and most importantly, he’s an incredible human being with a huge empathy gene. It was the perfect choice and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have Natty running the Techstars program at our original location.

We encourage all of our Managing Directors to become board members or observers at some of the companies that graduate from their classes. As fate would have it, Pana (an incredible on-demand mobile travel agent) went through one of Natty’s classes and recently Natty joined their board of directors. His experience in the travel industry is the perfect fit and Natty’s now in the ideal position to mentor founder Devon Tivona. Where the continuum comes full circle is that Devon was a summer intern at Everlater.

At the 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said something that’s become my favorite quote of all time.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”

When Nate called Natty back in 2008, urging him to quit his high-paying Wall Street job and come join him on the adventure of a lifetime, little did they know where it would take them, but something in their gut told them to trust the universe and just do it. Nate’s gone on to become the Product Manager of Airbnb’s recently announced Trips and together, he and Natty can now look back and connect the dots that brought them to this point in their lives.

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Before Voting, Think About Your Daughter

My daughter turned 18 last month and I’m so grateful that she grew up in a country that has been steadily moving towards true equality for women. America’s slow march towards equal rights for all has fostered an environment where young women today, more than any time in history, finally believe they can accomplish anything a man can. Yet here we are, just a few days before one of the most important presidential elections in our country’s history, and we’re on the precipice of electing a man who will undeniably unravel so much of that progress with his behavior and views.

Despite all of the metrics (unemployment, GDP, etc.) that irrefutably support the notion that our country is in far better health today than it was when President Obama took office eight years ago, a huge percentage of Americans stand ready to elect Donald Trump President, despite all of his obvious flaws. It’s my belief that the undercurrent of this is a deep-rooted fear of globalization that runs through our populace like a live wire and manifests itself in a collective behavior and ideology that is shocking to so many of us.

I believe that 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings and a few other events have surfaced this deep-rooted fear in us which far eclipses what I experienced growing up during the Cold War. Despite what so many of my successful, left-leaning friends think, that fear doesn’t lie only in the working class and uneducated. I’ve heard a group of ivy-league educated wall street execs tell me they’re voting for Trump and that they hope he “blacktops the middle east” and a tech CEO recently griped to me about paying for health care for “those fucking Mexicans crawling over the border” and how Trump will put an end to that.

Intellectually, I recognize and understand why so many are drawn to him. As much as I disagree with their perspectives, I can at least understand the ignorance driving their fears. When I was growing up, we were brainwashed into thinking that the Russians were evil and had a deep hatred for America. When I visited Russia after the wall came down, of course I quickly realized how wrong that was. I grew up fairly homophobic only to find myself close friends with a man I only later found out was gay. I was forced to reevaluate everything and expand my views. Even as an adult, I took my young daughter to Cambodia with an irrational fear lurking in the back of my mind of having her abducted into the sex trade, a preconceived notion I’m still ashamed of. All of those perspectives were rooted in my ignorance.

What I just can’t get my head around though, is how a father could possibly vote for a man that will undoubtedly enable behavior toward his daughter that would at the very least enrage him and at worst, have him reaching for the nearest shotgun. While it’s beyond my limits of belief, intellectually I can understand how some people might rationalize a vote for Trump. However, I simply cannot understand how a father with a daughter, if he really thinks about it, can cast that ballot.

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There’s no way to deny that Donald Trump is a scumbag when it comes to how he views and treats women (even the men I’ve spoken with who support him agree). I’ve played on sports teams, been in locker rooms and spent a few years living in a testosterone-driven fraternity and while I’ve certainly come across a few guys with Trump’s DNA (not many),  none of them have run for leader of the free world.

When the President of the United States says his vile misogyny is just locker room talk, it’s a message to every man in America that this type of behavior is acceptable. A President who says that you need to “grab ’em by the pussy” will enable and encourage millions of men to treat women far worse than Trump does. Is this really how you want your daughter thought of and spoken to? Is this the world you want your daughter to grow up in? When you stand in front of that ballot on Tuesday, understand that if you vote for Trump, you are complicit in creating a very dangerous environment for your daughter.

I challenge every father of a girl who’s even considering voting for Trump to take a few minutes and think about how he’d react if a man talked about or to his daughter the way Trump talks about women. Before you cast your ballot, talk to your daughter about how Trump’s words make her feel. Look her in the eyes and tell her you’re voting for a man that’s going to encourage behavior that rattles her self-esteem and makes her feel afraid for her safety. Do you want her to grow up in that environment or one where she believes she can even be President of the United States? Have that conversation with her this weekend. She’s your daughter and you know she deserves better.

Posted in Personal Views, Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments

Hacking Reference Checking 

We all acknowledge the critical nature of thorough reference checking as it relates to hiring or investing in someone. However, given that most people are reticent to offer a negative reference, most of us struggle with extracting the type of valuable feedback we’re seeking in order to make better decisions. 

Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared a hack for reference checking that I still use today. For me, it still delivers more signal than any other method I’ve come across. Here’s how it works:

Dear Samantha,

I’ve discovered that you worked with Daniel Jones at DKR a few years ago. I’m evaluating an investment in Daniel’s new startup and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share some insight with me about your experience working with him. However to be respectful of your time, I’m only asking you to follow up and reply to this email if your experience with him was exceptional. 

Thank you, Mark

We all want to hire or invest in exceptional people. Well, anyone who’s had a terrific experience working with someone will be happy to reply to an email like this, right? Mediocre or less though and they’d probably rather go to the dentist. As you can see, this method allows people to gracefully opt out of those uncomfortable calls while at the same time, delivering the signal you’re looking for. The most important aspect of this approach though is to send at least 10 emails like this, even more if possible. The more data points, the better.

I’m always thrilled when I get a bunch of responses with people telling me that they’d be more than happy to tell me how great someone is and how I’d be foolish not to work with them. On the other hand, a handful of non-responses is a sure sign that I’ve got some more diligence to do. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. I’d also love to hear about any other methods people use to make better human capital decisions. 

Posted in Angel Investing, Startups, TechStars | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Music Never Stopped

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” – Plato

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Back in 2011, I walked into Topspin Media’s office for the first time and this bearded dude in a faded brown tee shirt popped out of his chair, and with a big smile stuck out his hand and said “Hey, I’m Bob, you must be Mark.” So began a special friendship which culminated in our announcement yesterday of Techstars Music and I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Bob Moczydlowsky to the Techstars family as Managing Director of this incredibly exciting new program.

So first thing’s first. Music as a business? Let’s face it, it’s been a difficult industry for startups to succeed in. Actually, it’s been brutal. I learned that as an investor in Topspin where Bob, Ian and an insanely passionate and talented group of people created a company that was genuinely disrupting how artists connect with their fans. Yet we lost money in that investment. Simply put, the dynamics of the industry have historically made it difficult for startups to scale.

So why are we placing a bet on a rock pile where so many pick axes have been broken? Well, let’s start with the fact that more people listen to music every day than log into Facebook. Music is unlike anything else, it’s the cultural scaffolding that unites people from all walks of life. It completely transcends socioeconomics and touches every human being in a deeply unique and personal way. However, from a business perspective, the music industry is underinvested in for good reason. Less than 2% of mobile ecosystem dollars goes to the music industry and yet the average mobile user consumes close to an hour of content every day. There’s opportunity there!

We recognize that it’s going to be hard, but for the first time in history, we’ve been able to bring some of the most important players in the ecosystem together to collaborate and we’re willing to take a stand and say hey, this is important and we’re going to do this. There’s new technologies and business models emerging, as well as new delivery & consumption paradigms which lead us to believe the industry is at a tipping point.

We’ve wanted to do a music accelerator for a long time, but believed that the key to doing it well would be a consortium model where the most important players in the ecosystem were deeply engaged. That’s a tall task given the historic dynamics in the industry and there’s only a few people that could pull something like that off. Bob’s one of them. He’s universally liked and respected in the industry and that’s rare. He’s also grinded away in startups himself so he has a deep and genuine empathy for founders – perhaps the single most crucial characteristic we look for in our Managing Directors. More than anything though, like all of us, Bob never stopped being a fan. Take a moment and watch his brilliant TED Talk, Think Like A Fan.

Most importantly, there’s no way we could possibly attempt this without the leadership and forward thinking of our partners in this endeavor. I’m blown away that Warner Music Group, Sony Music, QPrime Management, Silva Artist Management, Era of the Engineer, Harmonix Music Systems, SONOS & Bill Silva Entertainment all came together to partner with us. It’s really hard to get your head around the breadth and depth of mentorship & access these startups are going to get.

There will be a lot more information in the coming weeks. LA is the perfect place for us to do this and we’re seriously stoked to launch another program in one of the most important and fast-growing startup communities in the world. Techstars is absolutely #LongLA. For startup founders who would like more information about the program or how to apply, please contact music@techstars.com.

Finally, if you’re wondering why there’s a big Stealie on top of this post, that’s simple. I’m a deadhead from way back and I’ve been waiting a long time to use one in a post. Seems like the perfect moment.

There’s a band out on the highway
They’re high-stepping into town
It’s a rainbow full of sound
It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns
Everybody’s dancing…

 

 

 

 

Posted in Music, Startups, Venture Capital | Tagged , | 2 Comments