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Adversarial Interoperability

As I make my way through the various predictions & reflections that accompany the new year, one stands out: the EFF’s 2019 Year In Review, entitled “Dodging Bullets on the Path to a Decentralized Future“. I have long been disappointed that there have seemed to be two separate and parallel conversations going on: the “traditional” digital rights / internet freedom community talking about “re-decentralizing the web” and the blockchain/crypto community working on the same thing. I like the EFF’s recent work because they are connecting the two conversations, and their year in review is a good place to start on that.

A key link in the EFF review is to Cory Doctorow’s work on Adversarial Interoperability, which studies the history of interoperability of technical systems and all of the commercial, legal and policy battles that haven ensued because of it.

In this post in the Adversarial Interoperability series, Cory details the different kinds of interoperability and the dynamics around them. His mantra is “Fix the Internet, not the Tech Companies” and I couldn’t agree more.

I believe, and we have said at USV many times, that driving interoperability is the best and most effective way to limit the power of big tech companies, and that in today’s environment we should focus on “breaking up the data, not the companies.”.

When I talk to regulators, lawmakers and policymakers, I often use this diagram (credit to Placeholder for the underlying graphic):

Which shows that from a historical perspective, these “open” or “interoperability” technologies have been the driver in breaking up each era’s dominant monopoly.

It’s the same today, and Cory’s and EFF’s excellent work on the subject adds a lot of depth to the analysis.

Slides: Crypto @ Harvard Kennedy School

Last week, as I have done for the last several years, I gave a guest lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The class is DPI-662: Digital Government: Technology, Policy, and Public Service Innovation taught by my old friend David Eaves and the topic in recent years has been on Cryptonetworks and Blockchains.

I am always amazed at the people in the class — incredible diversity of backgrounds from around the world. And as we have discussed crypto over the past few years, the conversation has gotten better and better — whereas a few years ago it was a curiosity it is clear that people are paying close attention.  

Here is the deck I used for the talk.  Like many of my presentations on crypto, it is geared towards newer technical audiences with a deeper policy slant.   Makes less sense without the narrative, but I have included speaker notes which you can see in the Google Slides version.

Enjoy!

The Butter Thesis

At USV, we talk a lot about our investment thesis.  The USV thesis is a set of ideas that has guided our investing over the years.  It is a tool we use to help ourselves know what to look for, and to help companies who fit into it to find us.

Despite all of the writing we have done on the thesis over the years, some parts of the it remain understood, but unwritten.  One of those is what I like to call “The Butter Thesis”.

“Butter” is the term we use to describe interactions & experiences that are just so smooth.  Rich, easy, delicious.  Hard to define formally, but you know it when you see it / feel it.

Butter can apply to dev tools, enterprise/b2b products, and consumer products.  

Classic examples of Dev Butter are the Stripe API and the Twilio API.  Tools that are just so simple and fun to use (and useful!) that you just can’t help build with them.  Or, the first time you install Cloudflare and your site just gets fast and the DDOS just stops.  OMG Firebase. Takes my breath away.  Or before that, Ruby on Rails and jQuery.  The category-defining tools of each era of development have succeeded in large part because of their Buttery-ness.

B2B Butter is Airtable and Slack (and really, Google Docs, though that’s less exciting somehow).  Or in narrower vertical, Splice.  Or, in a hidden horizontal, Carta.  Tools that make working together so so much easier — like, hard to imagine what it was like before they existed.

On the consumer side, Butter means end-user experiences that are frictionless and joyful.  For example, I recently went to China and was blown away by the QR Code experience — straight butter wherever you go, linking the real world to the online world.  Duolingo is Butter for Learning.  Nurx is Butter for Health.  Coinbase is Butter for Crypto.  Amazon Prime is Butter for e-Commerce.

Building for butter means understanding that every step of the experience can be honed, smoothed and improved, to the point that it’s so good you just can’t take it.  Butter is deceptively simple. A single ingredient that yet does so much. 

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!  Maybe this is obvious and isn’t that deep. But it is hard to pull off, and truly extraordinary when it is accomplished.

CoinAlts Chicago: Fireside Chat w Sam McIngvale of Coinbase Custody

A few weeks ago at the CoinAlts conference in Chicago, I did a fireside chat with Sam McIngvale, CEO of Coinbase Custody.  CoinAlts is a conference focused mostly on the institutional infrastructure around crypto assets — legal, accounting, custody, etc.  So we started out talking about the evolving role of custody in the crypto markets, and also talked generally about what we’re excited about in the next few years.  It was a lot of fun.  Here it is:

Saying Sorry

As I turned to write this, I was in the middle of reviewing a document a friend had asked me to look at a little while ago. In somewhat typical fashion, I had not done it right away, and had basically forgotten about it until he pinged me again, and even then I didn’t get to it right away.  

I feel terrible about that, and as I reflect on things as part of Yom Kippur today, I realize that one of the things I feel the worst about over the past year is being a bad communicator. I have let things drop and haven’t been responsive.  At the end of the day, it’s a matter of respect and I have not done a good enough job.

So for the many of you out there (including readers of this blog — notice no new posts for about 5 months…) who I’ve done this to, I am sorry. I will do better.

How to Read a Pitch

Yesterday, we had a team offsite at USV, which included a “presentation party” where a bunch of us gave 3-minute presentations on a variety of topics. It was actually a perfect window into everyone’s personality — Andy gleaned lessons about venture capital from music lyrics (of course), Albert talked about beauty in math focusing on the Fibonacci sequence, Bethany talked about her early entrepreneurial adventures with Beanie Babies, Gillian walked us through the fun things you can find in a proxy statement, Matt introduced us to Kayfabe.  That’s just a few, but suffice to say they were all great, and were totally on-brand with everyone’s personalities.

Not surprisingly, I decided to talk about the beauty I see in Baseball, focusing on just one small thing: the way the batter reads the spin on an incoming pitch.  Here it is — enjoy (I recommend holding a baseball while you watch, if you have one):

Building a culture of success

My son played in a baseball tournament this weekend. His team did well, and finished as the runner-up.  The team that beat them in the finals played really well, but more importantly, it was obvious that they had a strong culture of success.

From the moment they walked on the field, they had a noticeable “bounce”. – they were literally bouncing around with energy and excitement. When they started warming up, it wasn’t haphazard and sloppy, but rather organized, energetic, and purposeful.   It was clear that they had a warm-up routine designed to instill focus.  It was led by the kids themselves.  They had a huddle before every inning at-bat ending with a cheer of “hit!” and boy did they hit the ball well (better than any team I’ve seen all season).  They cheered every kid on in a major way, and bounced in celebration when they scored.  When they won, they posed for a team photo and the coach said “ok, time for your first Legends’ point” and they pointed to the camera in a victory celebration (the club was called the Legends) — teaching the kids that not only were they part of a long-term culture of winning, but that this was just their first step on their path.  Even when they were sitting together before the game eating lunch, they had togetherness and winning baseball in their eyes.  They were having fun the whole time, and it was clear that at every step of the way, the club’s culture was behind it.

I looked through at the club website, and it became clear that what I witnessed was not a one-off moment, but part of a bigger culture.  This club has a practice facility where they do game situation indoor practice all winter long  (with trophies conspicuously mounted).  I saw pictures on the website of older kids doing the same pre-game drills in that facility, with the same intensity.   They have camps, and dinners, and skills clinics.  I can just imagine the youngest members of the club (my son’s age) watching the bigger kids do the drills, and the chants, and the movements & motions.  

Having coached baseball for 10 seasons now (5 years x 2 seasons per year), and having played high school ball on an pretty good team and little league ball on a very good travel team (1989 NYC Federal League champions, 46-5 record — yes, I am still proud of that), I am particularly attuned to the dynamics of winning (and less winning) teams.  

And now, working in the startup / VC world, I see from the inside what winning (and less winning) teams look like.  USV has built a culture of success over the last 15 years, which I am hell bent on carrying forward to the next generation.  

Success is one part ability/skills and one part culture. The skills are the raw material and the culture is what makes it great. So what makes for a culture of success?

This is material for a series of posts rather than just one, but I’ll focus on a few observations & memories here:

1/ Legend & lore — winning begets winning, especially in generational enterprises like companies and sports clubs (just look at the Yankees, or Duke Basketball).  The younger generation needs to look up to the older one and learn what success looks like and how to model it. 

2/ Body language — so much of success is about feeling poised and energized.  Think “power pose”.  The team this weekend had it.

3/ Structure — complex tasks like building a company or hitting a baseball need to be broken down into pieces so they can be understood and mastered. Figuring out how to do this in the right way is the magic of coaching, and it’s not easy.  How can you take an amorphous goal and break it into understandable pieces, ideally explainable with metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes?

4/ Fun — this seems silly but it’s really important. Teams succeed when they are having fun, and they have fun when they succeed.  

That is it for now. I’m heading into my week energized and inspired.

The Trust Equation

This week was the annual USV CEO Summit, one of my favorite moments of every year (remarkably, this was my 8th summit, and they seem to get better and better).  The theme of this year’s summit was “Trust”, which, for those paying close attention, is the anchor of USV’s investment thesis 3.0.

We have been spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of trust, what we mean by it, and how we think it can become an actionable part of a startup strategy.  More on that to come.  

As part of the summit yesterday, we asked a handful of CEO’s to talk about what trust means in the context of their product and/or company.  As you can imagine, there are many different ways to look at it and think about it.  Here, I’d like to point out the framework that CircleUp‘s Ryan Caldbeck presented, which is:

(click through to read the entire thread with Ryan’s commentary)

I found this to be surprisingly simple and profoundly useful.  I hope it’s useful for you too.

Setting up a system

Like most people, I have struggled over the years to comes up with a organizational/productivity system that works for me.  Disclaimer: I do not yet have it down perfectly, and am not claiming guru status.  But I do have a few things that have worked pretty well, and I have noticed some things that others do that seem to work, so I will share those here.

I have a somewhat elaborate system which I will explain below, but at the end of the day it all boils down to a single strategy: getting things into my calendar.  The other main thing I try to solve for is simply not forgetting things.  I live in a constant stream of emails and meetings, and it’s easy to forget something important.  So a goal here is to help ensure that I don’t forget things and ultimately, that I’m focused on the most important thing most of the time.

I live by the calendar and generally obey it.  This is a trick I learned from Fred, who doesn’t use any productivity system except for brute force email and calendaring everything.  Getting something into my calendar is the most sure-fire way that it will get done — having a date and time attached to something gives it a lot more weight than a wishy-washy entry on a list of to-dos or “priorities”.

Working backwards from the calendar as ultimate do-place, I have a few tricks for capturing and prioritizing, loosely based on the “Getting Things Done” theory of capture/clarify/organize/etc.   As much as possible, I try to get big things out of my Inbox and into a place where I can see and organize.  For this I use Trello.  I have a board I use every day that looks like this:

From right to left:

The main show here is the “priorities” list, where I try to pluck out the important big things on my plate — this helps me make sure I am not forgetting something.  Roughly daily, I review this list, sort it, and make sure things are in my calendar to do.

Another list in my Trello is “meetings”.  I use this list to capture high-level takeaways from meetings.  I am a big believer in the concept of the “commonplace book” and the value of taking notes and reviewing them over time.  For me this step is more about just general processing rather than to-dos, though there is a to-do component.  I take meeting notes by hand in a small notebook (currently a moleskine but in the old days I used a spiral bound), and always mark follow-ups with a “F/U” with a circle around it — this is a trick I learned from Phil Myrick back when I worked at PPS.  As a way of processing the meeting notes, I make a card in trello for each meeting and add the follow-ups as checklist items (Dani has a system similar to this, using Notion, and I’m always impressed with how well it seems to help her process meetings).  For little things, I just do them right away, for bigger ones, I prioritize and calendar them.

On the left is the “Inbound” list.  I use this to capture fleeting thoughts, ideas and notes.  Things get on this list in two ways: 1) via Wunderlist, which I mainly use by phone — I have found this to be the easiest and quickest way for me to jot something down on the go.  I use Zapier to move things from my main list in Wunderlist into “inbound” on Trello.  2) I use Trello’s built-in email-to-board feature to get larger items out of my inbox and into Trello.   Again, the goal here is just to capture so I can process/prioritize later.

Another input into this system is my other notebook, the Ink+Volt Planner. I am on my third year of using this wonderful tool: it’s a structured goal and priorities setting notebook that helps you create and reach yearly, monthly and weekly goals.   I find that the Ink+Volt, like meditation, helps me cut through the noise and see what’s important more clearly.  I do a planner session every week (it’s in the calendar), and use that to inform all of the above.

Having now written all of this, it seems pretty clear that this is a lot of work, and may be excessively complex.  My wife would probably describe this as “planning to plan”, and just an elaborate mechanism for avoiding doing the actual stuff, or something like that.   That may indeed be so, and I often think about Fred’s simple strategy of blast relentlessly through email and calendar everything.  It is impressive and seems to work.  Mostly, I use this system so that I am not just at the whims of my inbox.

For sure, my biggest weakness is email, which I still struggle with.  Albert has a system here, which seems to work for him, which is: using a set of predefined gmail filters, clear the inbox daily.  Not the entire inbox, but a few filtered versions (family, USV team, his portfolio companies).  I’m not there yet.

So, there you have it.  That’s my system. It’s a work in progress.  What’s yours?

Nick Grossman

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