Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pick Teams, Place Bets

I posted this first on

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry via Marc Hedlund

That has been a favorite quote of mine since I read it on Marc’s blog a couple of years ago. I’ve known Marc since his days with Popular Power. When he and my college friend Jason Knight founded WeSabe I came in as a small angel investor.

Marc has also been a guest speaker at the YCombinator weekly meetings, and as I’m preparing for the teams coming in to the iAccelerator, I called him this morning to ask for some advice on how he has dealt with startups, and his recommendations for me.

Some VC running a venture training program at Stanford said that most of what he does is pick teams and place bets. They add value by making connections, and getting involved a bit. But, they’re very explicitly not trying to run the companies. Marc told me this when I asked how to train teams to run board meetings. Marc’s main point was that the information founders share with investors at a board meeting should be the same information they already collect just to run their company. “What do we really need to know about our business to know if we’re succeeding or failing”

Much of Marc’s advice felt like this. When I asked whether he recommended having teams give tech talks he said that he had tried it a couple of times at different startups with varying results. The first time an engineer suggested it and the culture embraced it. Another time he mandated it, and the team rejected it. Asked whether I should train people in a specific development methodology such as Agile, he recommended that instead I bring people in to talk about their experience with different development practices and help teams evolve one that fits them. On whether there were standard tools all teams should use he mentioned that at WeSabe they use CampFire extensively for company collaboration, but they’ve tried BaseCamp a few times and hadn’t really got traction with it until recently.

Ultimately, Marc’s advice comes down to ‘listen’ understand whats actually happening, collect and present information. Advocate rather than mandate the changes you want to see.

Sometimes I describe my vision for the iAccelerator as a ‘Startup Factory’ where all the companies coming thru abide by ’standard’ processes and use common tools. I imagine multi-colored story cards marching accross Kanban boards behind each of our teams. And that we’re all using Salesforce, Basecamp, Trac, Git / SVN, etc. which allows teams to track their own progress, and us as external stakeholders to quickly and uniformly monitor the different companies we’re engaged with. The combination of all these things gives us a consistent brand of what it means to be an iAccelerator team.

And honestly, I feel there maybe times when this is appropriate. But, Marc and the VC seem to argue heavily in the direction of picking really great people and then giving them the latitude to express their brilliance in the ways which are comfortable for them.

From this quote on the YCombinator ‘about‘ page, it seems Paul Graham takes this position too.

We try to interfere as little as possible in the startups we fund. We don’t want board seats, rights to participate in future rounds, vetoes over strategic decisions, or any of the other powers investors sometimes require. We offer lots of advice, but we can’t force anyone to take it. We realize that independence is one of the reasons people want to start startups in the first place. And frankly, it’s also one of the reasons startups succeed. Investors who try to control the companies they fund often end up destroying them.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

LA Community Space Redux

I'm collaborating with Archana down in Bangalore about the idea of creating a large temporary structure as community exhibition space for the artists there. She asked me to write about my experiences with community spaces in Los Angeles.

In 2003 I became interested in helping the independent film community in Los Angeles take advantage of internet distribution to introduce their work to the world at Large. At Burningman I had seen a large school bus with 'The Los Angeles Filmmakers Coop' spray painted across its side in full Graffiti style. Tao Ruspoli, the owner of the bus, had been operating a mobile film studio and training center out of the bus in Venice Beach, but was eager to move into a larger fixed space.

After some search we rented a beautiful old powerhouse in Venice beach which was just one large 1500 sq ft. space with 20 ft ceilings. We needed a way to separate the space into studios where people could work on their projects, while leaving the space open for exhibitions, parties, performances, trainings, etc. Since we had a short term lease on the space we could not make fixed changes to the space. The solution we found was to build a second story out of warehouse shelving called pallet racks. This way we installed 6 elevated studio areas and one chill-out section while leaving the ground floor open for more public gatherings.

We operated the space for 6 months and a vital community of artists, performers and filmmakers came to spend alot of time there. While individuals had personal areas to work from there was no visual or sound barriers separating the different sections of the space. So, everyone got sucked into any drama happening anywhere. Looking back on it, we all felt like it was a wonderful space for socializing and connecting with people, but not particularly conducive to work.

Determined to fix the shortcomings of the Lafco space in 2004 I rented a large loft in The Brewery, a large colony of artist lofts in downtown Los Angeles. Here I built a large 3 story structure out of pallet racks which provided 20 private areas with internet and power which people could work from. I deemphasized the role of events in this space, and restricted the units to people actively working on projects. Unfortunately, it seemed that people who were functional enough to meet my criteria, had no interest in moving their work onto a large jungle gym.

After some time I recognized that the experiment wasn't working, so rather than waste the opportunity, I opened it up to the more fringe artist community and allowed people to live there as well. The remaining months were fun, but predictably chaotic, and in the fall of 2004 I shut the place down and moved to India.