Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Find Your Compass All Around You

William Deresiewicz has been writing a lot about the problems with an Ivy League education.  As someone in possession of two expensive degrees from Stanford and another expensive degree from Harvard Business School, I am both sympathetic to his points and terrified that he'll damage the value of the brands that I (and my parents) paid so much for.

In a recent interview that appeared in The Atlantic, Deresiewicz said something that made me pause for reflection:
"These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star."
The notion that praise and grade-grubbing are dangerous is well established--just look at the work of Carol Dweck.  But what interests me is the notion of self-possession.

The paradox of self-possession is that unless it is tempered with feedback from the outside world, it is self-delusion.  On the one hand, it's critical to find yourself.  On the other hand, without experiencing the outside world, you can't find yourself.

When I think about my own self-awareness, I difficulty tracing it to its origins.  How do I know that I love to write?  When I was a child, I loved reading, and decided I wanted to tell my own stories.  When I was older, I wrote a lot of papers, and professors gave me a lot of "A"s.  After I graduated, I wrote things, and people read them and enjoyed them.  Does that mean that I was measuring myself by external standards, rather than internal ones?

When I was young, I loved books indiscriminately, but as I got older, my ability to distinguish between "good" writing and "bad" writing increased.  Yet even now, it is hard to judge.  Some authors have amazingly interesting ideas, but indifferent prose.  Others have hackneyed ideas but are outstanding prose stylists.  Is Dave Barry a great writer?  Stephen King?

And when I judge my own writing, I'm applying an internal standard, but it is an internal standard that I developed by reading other works, as well as others' criticism of those other works.

Developing your internal compass is one of the essential parts of growing up (and something which not everyone accomplishes).  Yet people who tell you to "find yourself" are providing advice that is useless, or worse, actively harmful.  Self is not a treasure that you can find; it is a foundation that you lay, brick by brick, by experiencing the ideas and the world around you.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Real Reason You Need To Overcome Envy

Envy, to put it bluntly, sucks.  This isn't news; envy is one of the original seven deadly sins.  And the media is happy to tell us that envy is the most modern of sins, enabled by social media and the fear of missing out (FOMO; by the way, who decided that everything had to be abbreviated these days.  Are we really that short of letters?).

As a result, we're blasted with advice to stop comparing ourselves to others.  Yet while I acknowledge the corrosive effects of envy, I can't help but feel that all this well-meaning advice focuses on *avoiding* envy rather than truly *overcoming* envy, and that's a huge missed opportunity.

Comparing yourself to others can lead to envy, but it is also an incredibly powerful tool.

I started my career in personal finance and investing, and I still remember one of the key lessons of personal finance--90% of investment returns come from asset allocation, not asset selection.  In other words, what matters is the amount you invest in equities, not the individual stocks you pick.

The same principle applies to your life.  The categories you choose for yourself have a huge impact on what you achieve.

It would be easy for me to define a narrow category in which I could be the market leader--for example, independent angel investors who majored in Creative Writing and Product Design and have written a best-selling book.  But such a categorization only serves to make me feel good about myself; it doesn't actually give me useful feedback on how to get better.

In contrast, if I put myself in broad categories like "Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs" or "Early-stage Investors," I am decidedly not a market leader.  In fact, I'm a very small fish in a very big pond.

It would be very easy to feel envious of people who invested in Dropbox or Whatsapp (sadly, I didn't, even though I was introduced to Drew back in 2008, and was actually a Stanford classmate of Brian Acton).  And being human, I do struggle with envy at times.

But by struggling with, and eventually overcoming that envy, I'm able to define a successful peer group from whom I can learn.  Recognizing and acknowledging my own mistakes and failings, and learning from the success of others are two of the main ways I can improve.

Ultimately, success in my world, the startup ecosystem, is determined by the ability to learn quickly.  Comparing myself to others is one of the best ways for me to do just that.

This approach isn't for everyone; you need to feel secure in your own identity and worthiness, so that realizing just how many times you've f--ked up doesn't send you into a tailspin of depression.  But once you're able to overcome, rather than just avoid envy, the rewards are great.

Don't stop comparing yourself to others...stop feeling envy and start seeing opportunity.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Coming This Week: The Alliance

I’m delighted to share the news that the book I wrote with Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, The Alliance, is coming out on Tuesday!

The book expands on the ideas from our Harvard Business Review article of last year, "Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact" and lays out our argument for why companies that treat their employees like allies will be able to better recruit, manage, and retain entrepreneurial employees.

Now for the favor, dear reader.  I would love for you to buy the book on Amazon and write a detailed, honest review of what you read.

I have little to offer in return but my gratitude (other than 13 years of blogging for you for free), but will happily autograph your copy the next time we meet!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Finding A Lost Dog in the Bay Area

When we lost Misty, I read a lot of advice, but very little that was specific to our area.  Now that we have Misty back, I thought I'd do my part by explaining what we did, and what I thought worked.

0. You're chances are actually quite good.
Many times during the subsequent four days, I referred back to this ASPCA study which found that 93% of lost dogs return safely home.  That being said, luck favors the prepared.

1. Start looking right away.
As soon as I got the call that Misty was lost, I left the office immediately.  Fortunately, the folks at PBworks were very understanding (and had a lot of meetings saved up for me when I got back).  While we didn't find Misty for another 90 hours, getting started right away helped us develop a better picture of the possibilities.

2. Report the lost dog everywhere you can.
I posted to Facebook immediately, followed by Craigslist and Nextdoor.  We also reported Misty to all the animal shelters we could.  As it turns out the animal shelters in the Palo Alto area are mainly operated by non-profits and volunteers; as a result, their information systems aren't particularly advanced.  The reporting mechanism is to go to the shelter in person and fill out a paper form.  Some (but not all) of the shelters do put photographs of found dogs online, but they can slip through the cracks.

We drove to the following shelters:
  • Peninsula Humane Society (located in San Mateo near SFO...this is the biggest shelter, and takes in most of the found animals in San Mateo County since their receiving area is always open; they don't put pictures of animals online, so you have to go there in person to check).
  • Palo Alto Animal Services (run by the city, relatively small, but very friendly; they provided the most useful materials, including a map/list of all the other shelters)
  • Humane Society of Silicon Valley (located in Milpitas, but only houses animals from Sunnyvale; they were also very friendly and provided a great guide to which shelters serve which cities)
  • Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority (located in Santa Clara, right off 101)
  • Santa Clara County Animal Shelter (located in San Martin, right by Gilroy(!); they handle unincorporated areas of Santa Clara county, including most importantly, any animals recovered from freeways)
If you lose your dog in the South Bay, you will probably also need to check out the San Jose Animal Care Center.

We visited Palo Alto twice and Peninsula Humane three times, and even though we didn't find Misty through a shelter, the shelter personnel were always very helpful and empathetic.

3. Post paper flyers.
It may seem old-school and inefficient, but this is the method that allowed us to find Misty.  We made a simple flyer in PowerPoint, including those silly rip off phone numbers at the bottom.  Since Misty is black and tan, we were able to get away with black and white, but color would usually be better.

Paper flyers work because they are the only tactic that is both long-lasting and geographically targeted.

I put up over 50 flyers across Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, focused on high traffic areas ranging from the Home Depot in East Palo Alto, to the entrances and exits to the Baylands trail, to the community board at the Pet Food Express in Palo Alto.  I also posted flyers at every Philz, Starbucks, and Peet's in the area, as well as all the parks near our house.

I always asked permission, and nearly everyone granted it (or told me that even though it was against corporate policy, I should put it up right outside the official grounds and that they would look the other way).  In particular, Home Depot had me tape my flyer to their front door, and the folks at IKEA actually monitored their 300 security cameras for me.  But I was warmly received everywhere.

But the flyer that eventually brought Misty home was taped to the traffic light pole at the intersection of Greer and Embarcadero (more on that later).

Flyers also offer a psychological benefit--even as my inability to find Misty got me feeling low, putting up flyers allowed me to feel like I was doing something productive that would increase my chances of getting her back.

4. Talk with people.
Folks in the Bay Area are both friendly and very attached to their pets.  Nearly everyone I accosted on the street was friendly, despite the fact that I probably seemed a bit crazed at the time.  The sole exception was an apparently homeless man who told me, "No, I haven't seen a stray dog, and I'm damn well not going to look for it."  Not a nice reaction, but I figured that he might resent the fact that someone would do so much for a dog, and that no one was doing much for him.

Many times, I got various hikers, bikers, and dog walkers to take my phone number and keep an eye out for Misty.  This proved essential to her recovery.

It's almost impossible to talk with people unless you're on foot, so be prepared to do a lot of walking.  I probably walked 3-5 miles/day during the days Misty was missing.  Wear sunscreen and a hat, and try to keep hydrated.  I developed blisters, but kept going anyways.

I was also fortunate that our neighbors whose dogs were Misty's friends also helped, and spent hours searching independent from us.  Our neighbor Allen, whose dog Zen is Misty's "boyfriend," even made his own flyers to pass out.

5. Be persistent but unfailingly polite.
Nobody has to help you.  It may be infuriating that no one at the shelters is proactively calling you whenever a dog comes in, but you have to understand that everyone is busy and underpaid.  Honey catches more flies than vinegar.

For example, I called both the Palo Alto Police Department and the California Highway Patrol several times per day to ask about reports of stray animals.  They didn't have to help me, but nearly every dispatcher took the time to look up the logs and provide me with whatever information they could.

6. Develop a theory and strategy.
By piecing together the various reports and evidence, I was able to develop a theory for what Misty was doing that helped me get her back.  Here is the evidence I received:
  • Friday, 3 PM: Received a call from someone who saw a flyer.  He thought he saw Misty at Colorado and Bayshore.
  • Friday, 7 PM: Talked with a woman on Oregon who thought she had seen Misty earlier that afternoon, heading towards the frontage road along 101.
  • Saturday: 8 AM: Called Palo Alto PD and found out that they had reports of a stray dog at the Embarcadero on-ramp of 101.  They then referred the issue to CHP.  Called CHP and found out that they had reports of a brown and black stray dog on 101 at 7:30 PM near Embarcadero
It was at this point that I began to panic.  I did not like the sound of things; the data points suggested that Misty had moved steadily away from home and towards the freeway.  Then things got quiet.
  • Sunday: 8 AM: Got a call from a man who told me that he had just seen one of my flyers.  "My English isn't good," he said, "But I think I saw your dog on the freeway last night, between Embarcadero and University."
  • Sunday: 8:05 AM: I called CHP and confirmed that they had reports of a brown and black stray dog on the 101.  The calls came in at 5 PM and 5:30 PM, but officers were unable to find the dog.
Now I was really panicking.  Alisha and I spent the morning driving around that stretch of freeway, and posted flyers at IKEA and Home Depot.  The IKEA security people said that they had seen a small dog living in the bushes near the loading dock, but that it had been there for a week.  Nonetheless, I told them to call me when they saw the dog again, no matter what the time.

After spending the day driving from shelter to shelter, I spent the evening walking around East Bayshore, putting up flyers and trying to find a way to search the shoulder of the 101.  At one point, I climbed up on the fence by the freeway, but after I saw a police car driving towards me, I beat a hasty retreat.  I can only assume the drivers called in and said that they had seen a crazy-looking man climbing the fence on the side of the freeway.
  • Sunday: 8:30 PM: Having learned my lesson, I called CHP and asked if they'd seen any stray dogs.  "We have an officer on the scene right now, trying to track down what's been described as a brown chihuahua."  They asked for my number and said the officer would call me, rejecting my offer to join the officer on the freeway to help with the search.  CHP never called back, and when I called at 9:15 PM, I found out that the officer hadn't been able to locate the dog.
  • Monday: 6 AM: The IKEA security team called; they had spotted the dog.  Since the photos they texted me were inconclusive, Marissa and I drove over and staked out the location.  Unfortunately, the dog was actually a male chihuahua.  Still, it was good to know something with certainty.
  • Monday: 5:40 PM: I got a call from the mother of a child at Marissa and Jason's summer camp.  She had just seen my flyer, and recalled seeing a dog that matched the photo on Friday night, when she was coming out of the Baylands Athletic Center.  Unfortunately, by the time she had turned the car around to look, the dog had vanished.  Based on this fresh lead, Alisha and I drove over there, put up flyers, and talked to as many people as possible.  Special thanks to the folks running the snack stand at the baseball diamond, the folks at the golf pro shop, and the folks at Anderson Honda, all of whom instantly directed me to place my flyers at their counter, in their bathrooms, and in their customer waiting area respectively.
At this point, I had a theory.  My guess was that Misty had made her way over to East Palo Alto.  She was hiding in the Baylands, where there is plenty of cover, and would try to navigate back at night, but before it became completely dark.

My plan was to take Tuesday morning and take flyers to all the offices in the Embarcadero/Baylands area, hoping to get more leads, especially since Misty would be getting hungry and thirsty, and might be desperate enough to come out during the day for good.
  • Tuesday: 5:22 AM: I was awakened by my phone ringing.  I vaulted out of bed and picked up.  A woman who was biking to work along Embarcadero had just seen Misty walking near the Shell gas station just off the off-ramp.  Alisha and I drove over their and were on site by 5:32 AM, but she was nowhere to be seen.
At this point, we split up.  Alisha drove the car to cover more ground, and I jogged on foot so I could talk with all the people who were out and about at 5:30 AM.  In addition to the homeless guy I mentioned earlier, there were quite a number of hikers and joggers.  One pair of hikers were women in their 50s.  When I told them what I was doing, they went back home, got their glasses and phones, looked at the picture of Misty, and told me they'd search for her.
  • Tuesday: 6 AM: "We just spotted her!  She saw us and ran around the corner."  I got directions and sprinted over to my search team.  They pointed the direction that Misty had gone--towards Embarcadero--and I kept running.  As I ran, I called Alisha and told her where Misty was probably going.  Alisha spotted Misty from the car.  When she called out, a panicked Misty took off at full speed across Embarcadero.  Alisha had to chase her all the way to Oregon Expressway, speed in front of her, screech to a halt in her path, and open the door to call to her.  Misty finally saw a familiar face, and immediately jumped into the car, and into Alisha's lap.
It was 6:30 AM, and 91 hours after she had disappeared, Misty was home.

Epilogue:
After taking Misty home to see the kids (and her boyfriend Zen), we took her to the vet.  She was dehydrated, hungry, exhausted, covered in pine sap, and was bleeding because she had run her paws raw.  But she was in good health.  After some IV fluids, they sent her home with us.

We gave her a bath, put her in her bed, and fed her in bed.  She didn't bother chewing her food before swallowing.  She spent the day in bed, recuperating.  I spent the rest of the morning wandering around town taking down flyers, though this chore was made lighter by the fact that A) we had Misty back, and B) everywhere I went, people were congratulating me, shaking my hand, and fist bumping with triumph.  Everyone felt like a part of the story.

Misty had her collar and license on, and she has a microchip, but none of those help until someone else is able to capture her and scan them.  Only 15% of lost dogs return via a shelter.  We found Misty because we put in an insane amount of work (about 8 hours per day) and got the word out to as many people as possible.  We also acted decisively whenever we got a hot lead, even though the first lead from the IKEA team turned out to be a different dog.

The one thing I wonder is whether we could have found Misty earlier.  I didn't put flyers up at the kids' summer camp on Friday afternoon because I didn't want to panic them or tell them about Misty's absence until I could get them home.  If I had put flyers up then, I might have gotten the tip about Misty being seen by the Baylands Athletic Center on Friday night, rather than Monday night.

At any rate, I was quite glad that only one entrepreneur asked me for money today.  I gave it to him, of course, and in my ecstatic joy at getting Misty back, would probably would have committed to anything anyone else asked of me!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Help Us Find Misty (Lost Dog in Palo Alto/East Palo Alto)



UPDATE: MISTY HAS BEEN FOUND!  THANK YOU EVERYONE! 
On Friday, shortly before noon, our family dog, Misty, escaped from our yard.  We've been searching for her every since we discovered her absence.  Now we need your help.

Misty is female, two years old, weighs 30 pounds, and was wearing a pink dog collar with Palo Alto tags (License #044044).

While Misty was lost near Greer Park, we have reason to believe she may have crossed Oregon Expressway, and is either North of Oregon Expressway, or might even be over in East Palo Alto (we have reports of a potential sighting near the Baylands Athletic Center on Geng Road.

Here's how you can help:

In addition to spreading the word on the Internet, if you're in the Palo Alto area, you can download our "Lost Dog" flyer and post it in high-traffic areas.  Note that I've already posted about 50 of these flyers around Midtown Palo Alto, and along the hiking/biking trail along Bayshore.

If you are in the area, and can look for Misty, keep in mind that Misty is shy with humans, so she will be hard to catch.

Instead, call or text me at 650 dash 224 dash 6362 any time, day or night, and I'll come to get her.

Misty is a beloved member of the family, so please do all you can to help!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The College Major Dilemma

A new study by Yale economists shows in numbers what we've always intuitively known: "Practical" majors like Finance, Engineering, and Nursing have a huge wage advantage over "impractical" ones like Art History, Drama, and Philosophy:
http://nyti.ms/1qAaQvo

During a recession, a Finance major, for example, earns 32% more than the average college graduate one year after graduation.  A Religion and Philosophy major earns 55% less than the average graduate (which means the consolation of philosophy comes in handy).  In concrete terms, if the average college grad earns $45,000/year after college, the average Finance major would be making just under $60K, while the average Religion and Philosophy major would be making a smidge above $20K.  For reference, the median American makes $27,000 per year.  So your college major can represent the difference between being poor, and making over double that of the average American--and that's just after one year.

Yet I feel uneasy simply advising students to ditch their majors and start learning to code.

For one thing, not everyone is suited for every major.  Back at Stanford, we actually had three physics tracks--advanced (for masochists), standard (for engineers--bear in mind that this was still pretty hard...the median on one of the Physics 53 midterms I tool was 17 out of 100.  That was the only time in my college career that I got a 70%, yet ended up with an A+), and "Physics for Poets."

I also remember taking Chemistry (the feeder class for being pre-med) and watching as vast numbers of former valedictorians abandoned their hopes of being a doctor after washing out.

For another thing, simply considering earning power doesn't properly measure contributions to society.  Bankers and lawyers make money, but do they make a difference?  Meanwhile, Education and Social Work majors help people directly.

In the end, I feel like the proper resolution to the college major dilemma is to make sure that students are able to make informed choices.  Simply knowing that majoring in Computer Science is likely to lead to a good career is useful (and obvious), but knowing the exact magnitude of the expected gains or losses from possible majors allows better decision-making.

If Jason or Marissa really wanted to major in Philosophy and Religion, I'd support their decision...and clear out a basement apartment for them to stay in after graduating.

My own solution to this dilemma--in the absence of real statistics--was to hedge.  I majored in both Engineering (Product Design) and Creative Writing.  This was a conscious strategy, one which my Creative Writing advisor, the great John L'Heureux agreed with.  "I'm glad that at least one of my students will actually be able to get a job," he told me.  "Just remember to come back and endow a professorship in our department someday."

The irony, of course, is that having a Creative Writing degree AND an Engineering degree has been great for my career. My first boss told me that my writing skills were one of the key reasons D. E. Shaw hired me (and disgorged quadruple the usual signing bonus for a non-CS major), and I've been the chief author of every organization I've been a part of ever since.

(Speaking of which, don't forget to pre-order my upcoming book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked AgePublisher's Weekly writes, "The specifics on helping employees network and aligning employee and company goals and values will help all employers create an engaged and self-actualized workforce.")

What makes this strategy work is the scarcity of people who are trained as both engineers and writers.  Rather than competing with a sea of English majors, my Creative Writing degree helped me stand out from all the other Engineering majors.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Quantity, Quality, and Inactivity

The world bombards us with conflicting advice.

On the one hand, we're told that quantity is the key factor in success.  Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule states that practice is the only path to mastery.  The Beatles played 10,000 hours of gigs in Germany before returning to England and stardom.

I've certainly leveraged the benefits of practice in my own life; while I earned a degree in Creative Writing from Stanford, the discipline of regular blogging has probably had more impact on my writing career.

On the other hand, we're told that quality plays the same role.  Steve Jobs was famous for insisting that his products be "insanely great," stating, "One home run is much better than two doubles."

Each time I compare the experience of using an iPad to that of rival tablets, I'm reminded of the power of quality.  Apple's devotion to quality has allowed it break open new markets and claim a disproportionate share of industry profits.

So who's right?

The answer, however cliched, is both.

The Beatles are legendary because of the quality of their music, not just their prolific output.  For example, I'm fairly certain KISS has released more songs than the Beatles (no offense to the KISS Army!).

Steve Jobs maintained the quality of Apple's products by conducting *daily* design reviews.  Each revolutionary product was the result of hundreds or even thousands of iterations.

The real choice is not quantity or quality; it's activity or inactivity.  As Shonda Rhimes told Dartmouth grads at her 2014 commencement speech, "Be a do-er, not a dreamer."

You can't create quality without going through quantity.  The only question is whether you release the results of your practice sessions, or if you carefully curate your output to maximize quality.  Pixar has never released more than one movie in a given year.  On nearly every movie, Pixar has stopped production (at great expense) and delayed releases rather than compromise on quality (though that doesn't explain Cars 2).

When deciding which approach to take, consider the following parameters:

1. What is the cost of iteration?

Movies are expensive.  New consumer products are expensive.  When iteration costs are high, polish your product to a fine sheen before making the investment in tooling and marketing.

In contrast, posting YouTube videos is cheap, and the market is always unpredictable.  When iteration costs are low, seek feedback directly from the market.

2. How crowded is your market?
The more crowded the market, the more important quality becomes as a differentiator.  In the United States, over 300,000 books are published every year.  It takes an incredible effort for a new book to break through.  That's why my co-authors and I worked so hard on the quality of The Alliance (now available for pre-orders, wherever books are sold) .

In contrast, if the market is wide open with demand far exceeding supply, ship early and ship often!

3. How are reputations made?

In some fields, reputations are made based on a small number of major breakthroughs.  A hit movie can change an actor or director from an unknown to a major star (or a young actress from "Eric Roberts' little sister" to "The highest-paid actress in the world").

In other fields, reputations are accumulated over time.  J.D. Salinger might have won his fame by writing The Catcher in the Rye, but I can't think of any bloggers who established themselves by writing a single, solitary post.

Figure out how reputations are made in your field, and prioritize accordingly.

Conclusion
Quantity and quality are both keys to success.  But in both cases, the first step is activity.  Be a do-er, not a dreamer.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

What's It Like To Judge A Pitch Competition

I enjoyed reading a recent Fortune article that provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the judges at a Rice University startup competition.  It didn't hurt that my old friend Robert Winter was prominently mentioned!
http://bit.ly/UffMcc

However, I think it's hard for a reporter to truly understand the dynamics of a judging team.  I've been a competition judge many times, and I've noticed a couple of patterns that would surprise most people.

1) The judges are highly likely to agree.

On stage, we try to put on a good show, and nothing entertains like differences of opinion.  But backstage, the first words are often, "So I think it's pretty clear which team is the winner, right?"  In 90% of the cases, the winner is a unanimous or near-unanimous choice.

2) The investing styles of the judges plays a major role.

A panel of angel investors will probably look at things differently than a panel of VCs, and vice versa.  I'm very focused on short-term go-to-market, since as an angel investor, I need my companies to demonstrate traction so they can raise more money.  A prominent VC that leads $10 million rounds will be far more focused on the big vision.  On the other hand, all of us tend to agree, the team is the single most important factor.

3) We don't always give first prize to the team in which we'd most likely invest.

I've judged competitions where we deliberately avoided giving the prize to the most fundable team.  Why?  Mostly, it's a question of fairness.  Pitch competitions can pit a bootstrapped startup against a funded company that's been around for years.  It's not fair to judge them the same way.  We also want the prize to actually make a difference--the funded companies that compete are like bullies who don't need the money or recognition.

If you want to know our true opinions, follow the money.

4) The judges probably know each other.

Some investors feel comfortable in front of a crowd, others don't.  If you fit into the first category, you're probably a regular on the circuit.  In most cases, I know at least a couple of the other judges already.

It's also the case that the chances that I'm going to work with one of the judges in the future is orders of magnitude higher than the chances I'm going to work with one of the contestants, and I act accordingly.

5) Ultimately, the process is fair.

Us judges aren't getting paid for our work, and most of us like to think of ourselves as good people.  It simply isn't worth it for us to go along with any attempts to rig the competition.

Final thought: The judges at a pitch competition, like any investors, are likely to be wrong.  The VC success rate is about 10%, and it's even worse for angel investors.  Just because you didn't win, doesn't mean you won't succeed.   Remember, Fred Smith got a C on the paper where he outlined the idea for FedEx!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Silicon Valley, Ageism, and Hipster Jeans

A friend's husband was laid off, and he had trouble finding another job.  Was he unskilled?  Hardly--he has a Stanford MBA and an engineering Ph.D.  The real problem, they realized, is that he was the father of two boys in college, and dressed that way.

My friend gave her husband a makeover--new haircut, trendy jeans, hipster glasses.  Pretty soon, he found another job, with a hot company that was looking for a top-tier MBA with an engineering background.

We'd like to believe that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, but what does it mean that a Stanford MBA can spend a year looking for a job, and only find one after dressing like his sons?

He was fortunate that his wife is a stylish lady with great fashion sense, but do we really need to call in the fashionistas simply to help older people a job interview?

Unless you die young, you're all going to be old someday.  Better to do something about ageism while you're young, rather than wait until you're old enough to be the victim.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Want To Make Political Humor That's Funny? Target Self-Importance And Hypocrisy.

I try (not always successfully) to avoid politics.  As a young Michael Jordan once noted after being asked to endorse a Democratic candidate, "Republicans buy shoes too."  But one thing I have noted is is the liberal (in the US political sense, not the classical "The Economist" sense) tendencies of most comedians and humorists.

Frank Rich tackles the topic of the missing conservative comedians in his recent New York magazine piece:
http://nym.ag/1gk1Qa8

"Conservative comedy is hard to find on television once you get past the most often cited specimen, Dennis Miller. But is this shortfall the fault of a left-wing conspiracy to banish brilliant dissident talent from pop culture’s center stage? As a conservative Christian stand-up, Brad Stine, has argued, people think “the left is funnier than the right” solely because the right hasn’t been “given the same options.” Or are conservative comedians languishing in obscurity because they just don’t have the comic chops to compete with Colbert, Jon Stewart, and their many brethren? What do conservatives find funny, anyway? Is the very notion of a conservative comedian an oxymoron, given that comedy by definition is often the revenge of underdogs against the privileged? If the powerful pick on the less powerful, or worse, the powerless, are the jokes doomed to come off as bratty, if not just plain mean?"

Rich lays out in gory detail numerous failed (and frankly, embarrassing) attempts at conservative humor.  I didn't even realize that Fox News had tried to produce a "humorous" Daily Show/Colbert competitor, "The 1/2-Hour News Hour," the worst-rated program ever according to Metacritic.

Of course, conservatives have no monopoly on unfunny political humor.  Plenty of formerly funny liberal comedians gave into their preachy sides and become dour party-poopers (this means you, Janeane Garofalo, Senator Al Franken, and Keith Olbermann).  My favorite comment on this phenomenon may be The Onion's 2004 piece on the formerly comedic talk show host Bill Maher, "Bill Maher Spends All Night Arguing With Republican Hooker" (mildly NSFW).

The real secret is well known to bipartisan takedown artists like The Onion and South Park: target self-importance and hypocrisy.

Attacking a person for their beliefs isn't universally funny, because doing so implicitly attacks the beliefs of a significant chunk of your audience.

But slamming a person for being a blow-hard or hypocrite?  That's something everyone can enjoy.

Don't like Alec Baldwin?  Don't attack him for his liberal politics, make fun of the hypocrisy of visiting Occupy Wall Street, then shilling for Capital One.

Tied of hearing Al Gore's voice?  Point out that the global warming crusader made a fortune selling his startup, Current, to oil-funded Al Jazeera.  Excelsior!

It's the equivalent of the gift that keeps on giving for liberal comedians, the seemingly endless stream of conservative homophobes who are revealed to be secretly homosexual.

Comedy has always thrived by poking fun of the powerful; if there really is a vast left-wing conspiracy, conservative comedians should climb down off their high horse and aim for that rich target.

P.S. Since this is a post about comedy, here's the funniest video of all time.

UPDATE: I figured it would be good to provide a list of comedians who are Republicans:
  • Drew Carey
  • Adam Sandler (well, he was funny once upon a time)
  • Vince Vaughn
  • Larry Miller
  • Yakov Smirnoff (I guess he doesn't like Communists)
  • Joan Rivers (residual loyalty to her grade school classmate, Abraham Lincoln)
  • Jim Belushi (insert your own "brother" joke here)