The End of Silicon Valley

TLDR: I joined the writers’ room for the final season of HBO’s Silicon Valley series so Sunday night’s series finale was extra meaningful to me. Helping with the show since season two was a fantastic experience that taught me about Hollywood’s incredible ecosystem. Part one of this post is about my reflection on the experience while the second part is a FAQ based on IRL conversations about the experience  And yes, this post is totally a huge flex. 

The Tale of Two Towns

Funny people are awesome. Nice people are fantastic. Funny, nice people at the top of their game are rare. So it was a no brainer* to jump at the chance to work with Mike Judge and Alec Berg when they invited me into the writers’ room for the final season of HBO’s Silicon Valley. Little did I know how much I was going to learn and the meaningful friendships to come from the gig. I was shocked by how much Hollywood and the Silicon Valley have in common such as:

  • Both ecosystems use iterative creative processes. Silicon Valley doesn’t frame product development as a creative process but the writers’ room experience has totally reframed product development as a creative process for me. In both ecosystems a small group of 8-10 professionals (e.g. a two pizza team) calibrate, brainstorm, pivot, and ultimately deliver an artifact that informs all of the other activities of the company (e.g. physical infrastructure, go to market activities, budget, timeline, hiring, etc). Further, both ecosystems empower a single person to set and enforce the right quality bar as the showrunners are equivalent to startup CEOs. Thus, allocating resources to the “right people” is the core function of the ecosystem as well as its major point of weakness (e.g. lack of diversity in both).  
  • Most startups and shows are not financial successes. The very small number of shows or startups that work create fantastic returns which makes each ecosystem work. Thus the most ambitious and committed people spend their time at “Ecosystem HQ” repeatedly working on their next time. Not surprisingly, both ecosystems develop tremendous data on peoples’ behavior and capabilities over time. Hollywood more openly discusses reputations as part of decision making at every level of a project. Silicon Valley gravitates to speaking about an organization’s culture and trajectory with rare exceptions of “star founders” being discussed.
  • Experience is a critical signal. Each ecosystem’s resource allocators (VCs and Studios) use “track records” heavily in their allocation decisions. This is because it is very hard to understand the level of quality something needs to hit without having seen “great” before. Thus track records are one of the best ways to mitigate allocation risks. However, this virtuous cycle of success has many negative effects across diversity of people, ideas, and the ideal of meritocracy.  
  • Proving demand is the shortcut in both ecosystems. Outsiders to either ecosystem can make projects bets that have very asymmetric returns since the expectation is most things won’t work. But if you are able to prove demand (e.g. product market fit) in either ecosystem the time it takes to validate your track record is rapidly compressed. This lottery system is incredibly powerful motivator for ambitious people to “side hustle”. It also means that in both towns everyone always has something to pitch! 
  • Painful development processes don’t guarantee better outcomes. Some companies are harder to work for than others. Similarly, the Showrunner decides how to “run the room” with some opting for a deliberate sustainable pace while others place ridiculous demands on everyone’s time. Great outcomes have come from both approaches. However, I think Hollywood’s business norms of project by project work empowers individuals to make better, more nuanced personal trade offs than Silicon Valley**.  

One stark difference between the two ecosystems: Hollywood does not hide its hierarchy. This was jarring given how intentionally tech tries to obfuscate hierarchy in pursuit of ideas. After adjusting to the surface level differences of these two approaches I’ve come to appreciate how explicit hierarchy can uncover and explore new ideas as well as “meritocracies”. Ultimately, “trust the process” is embraced by both towns while being instantiated completely differently.

Overall, this experience reinforced that the people matter the most when deciding what projects to take on. Always jump at chances to work with great humans who are world class experts in their profession, even if it is a stretch on your part. It will undoubtedly teach you new, valuable lessons you wouldn’t normally get. 

*It did involve some personal tradeoffs such as being away from my family every week and not going to work with a CEO of a special company I really admired. Needless to say I’m especially thankful to my Erin, my wife, for supporting and encouraging me to take this on!  

**Being a W2 tech employee provides many advantages, especially around equity incentives, at the cost of people staying in work environments they shouldn’t. Hollywood’s system ensures that individuals test the labor market frequently which likely increases efficiency of the ecosystem’s resource allocation function. 

FAQ: I’m in tech, how do I break into Hollywood?

How’d you get involved with the show?

After the first season I met Jonathan Dotan, a producer on the show, at the Code conference. I gushed about the show and asked how I could help. He took me up on the offer by asking for a tour of my office on Sand Hill Road. Over the following seasons I got more involved including calling into the writers room from time to time, setting up idea jam sessions between writers & founders, and hosting the actors on their research trips to the bay area.  

Takeaway: VC’s are probably onto something when they say, “How can I help?”. Lol.

What exactly did you do? 

First off, there was a team of subject matter experts in the room and on speed dial as no one person has enough breadth to inform everything that come up in the writers’ room. At the start of the writing process I shared stories, articles, and perspective from being a part of the startup ecosystem for the last twenty years. When things resonated I’d put together a deep dive presentation which was personally fun because there really is some ridiculous shit in our industry. As the room started breaking the season’s story arc I pulled in experts from my network to support the development of new characters and story direction. Finally as individual writers went “on script” to write full episodes they would ask for help with specific lines to make sure they were realistic while still funny as all hell. After the table read there was also a second bite at the apple to ensure realism. I occasionally pitched ideas and jokes along the way but thankfully they never kicked me out for doing that!  

Takeaway: The writers’ room uses whiteboards just as much as software teams!

Did they pay you? 

Alec told me that I was the most underpaid person on the show.  

Takeaway: I need to learn how to negotiate better. 

How does the writers’ room work? 

Building on what I wrote above about painful processes not creating better outcomes the writers’ room really reflects the personalities of everyone around the table. Silicon Valley’s writers had insanely impressive writing credits so everyone was confident and focused on great storytelling. I got to see a tremendous amount of respect, credit sharing, and jokes that are not work appropriate in any other professional setting. 

The specific daily break down was typically jamming for three hours at the start of the day, followed by group lunch in the room (sidenote: they invented their own version of doordash that is people powered), a break for walks & email, followed by another three to four hour jam. Lots of link sharing via Slack and email as well as regularly watching videos as a group made for a lot of real world data for everyone to mine.  

One big observation from the writers’ room process was how everyone knew their role to help create the best story. There were writers earlier in their careers who were responsible for taking copious notes and being encyclopedias of previous seasons. When the showrunners weren’t satisfied with the story everyone stayed late or came in on the weekend to get the story where it needed to be. Writers could flow in and out of the room without worrying about their ability to have an impact. When there was frustration it was productively handled. 

Takeaway: I’ve adjusted my pro football hopes from starting to being a waterboy (er, man). 

What are Mike and Alec like?

Well clearly I’m a fanboy so take that into account. They were extremely effective partners who have deep trust in each other. Beyond their obvious superpowers they picked durable constraints such as making the show as realistic as possible and that stories need to be Silicon Valley specific not typical office comedy tropes. It was wonderful to see no ego trips from either of them given all they’ve accomplished. Going forward, I’ll strive to work with people in tech who lead like them.

Takeaway: Please stop asking me who is funnier.  

What did you learn about Storytelling?

That is worth its own post. Actually, there are books written on the subject. For me, ensuring character agency so that their decisions drive the story instead of their reactions to external events was an excellent lesson. I also internalized that building an audience’s emotional investment in the characters is the key to telling a great story.  

Takeaway: I finally understand why people enjoy the story of how I met my wife! 

Finally, special thanks to Travis Bryant, Andrew Cedotal, and Dean Moro for reading early drafts!

Fin.

All of Silicon Valley should go to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting

Going to a Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting has been on my bucket list ever since I read Lowenstein’s Buffett years ago. My wonderful wife gave me the trip to Omaha this year for my 40th birthday. Yes, she thinks I’m a geek.

Here are seven reasons everyone in the Silicon Valley should go at least once:

  • You are exposed to very different types of people. The meeting attracts more than 40,000 people to Omaha from all over America and the World. What you learn about different types of people will be helpful to your job in the Silicon Valley.
  • Omaha is not the Silicon Valley. A great way to build perspective and empathy is to see different places. Omaha has lots of big and little things that will surprise you.
  • The event is itself is electrifying. From getting up early to the massive line at the door it feels like a mega sports event or concert. Yes, you can get the content online but you can’t get the energy to internalize the knowledge as viscerally.
  • The variety of BH companies is remarkable. If seeing the breadth of companies and business models doesn’t blow your mind I don’t know what will. A fantastic reminder that there are more great deals to be done than capital or time available. It is worth calling out that several BH companies’ products are not good for individual human health which is a whole different post.
  • Warren and Charlie are incredibly hale and hearty. Their quick wit, remarkable consistency, and self-awareness are incredibly inspiring. Frankly, seeing them in person made me want to check their driver’s licenses to ensure they were really 87 and 94 years old!
  • Charlie has a special way with words. I have never heard someone so pithy, insightful, and hilarious as Charlie Munger. Hearing the crowd reactions makes his oneliners all the more enjoyable. #ZFG
  • The meeting is the tip of the iceberg. While the meeting is the main event there are many other great things to do like running the Sunday 5K, visiting the Strategic Air Command Museum, and eating some amazing steak.

On top of all of the above great reasons to go, you will also get some amazing insights that will push your own thinking. Here are my top 3:

  1. Investing in Apple was not a tech investment to Warren. He built conviction based on the value of the brand, consumer satisfaction with Apple products, and the capabilities of the management team (including capital allocation).
  2. US and China are deeply interdependent. He convincingly explained why there might be short-term foolish behavior but long-term stability. His perspective also helped me realize that I am underinvested in China (investment ideas welcomed).
  3. A clear rationale for being a bitcoin bear. Admittedly, Warren and Charlie are being disparaging to the point of sanctimoniousness. I found their perspective that cryptocurrencies are a non-productive asset as great food for thought. It is wonderfully consistent with their rationale on not investing in gold and the value investing framework they use.

My only regret from the weekend was not getting a selfie with Warren or Charlie!

Startups don’t waste time on BD with Bigcos

“Every founder is presented with opportunities that seem great. That are “company making.” That are once in a lifetime. That are too good to let pass.. ”

Micah Baldwin’s Medium Post

Bigco’s regularly offer Startups partnership opportunities that seem too good to let pass.  Let’s unpack a few of the bigger reasons Startups without strong product market fit shouldn’t waste time on these Strategic BD* opportunities:

  • Startups don’t have anything strategic to trade. Before startups have significant product market fit the most valuable thing they can offer partners is outsourced development or beta testing
  • Big companies don’t move quickly. A classic deal maker phrase is “time kills deals” and I promise you this is true
  • Startups need distribution and money, not event-based co-marketing. Bigcos don’t contractually commit to distribution or money because they know their priorities may change. Read’s Micah’s blog post again with this idea in mind. 
  • Big companies have lots of people who need something to do. One of the most fun things for them to do is to talk to Startups because they get paid no matter what happens.

BTW, the first point above effectively kills true Startup to Startup BD. Nothing I or your Board says will keep you from investing time in BD with bigger companies.  Try to minimize the time spent on it and unless there is a contract to be signed don’t waste board time discussing potential BD deals.

Bottom line: Don’t waste your time on strategic BD until you have strong product market fit!  

*Strategic BD is not sales because it is not incentivized by a quarterly, or even yearly, quotas. This leads quota carrying sales guys to often quip, “BD is sales without a quota”.  

The Next Killer VR Apps: Beyond Games and Entertainment

img_2575

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with some amazing VR entrepreneursat Chetan Sharma’s amazing annual conference including VReal’s Todd Hooper, Baobob’s Maureen Fan, and PlutoVr’s Forest Gibson   As you can see above, Chetan picks the worst location for the event but we made it work.  As part of the event I contributed the essay below which I wanted to share more broadly for discussion with all awesome people that are coming together for Oculus Connect this week!


 

We are nearing the tipping point of mass market virtual reality (VR). It has taken a bit longer to get here, with the delay stemming from the cost of first generation hardware and manufacturing capacity. However, that’s changing. Earlier this year Mobile VR platforms like the Samsung Gear reports more than one million monthly active users and Google Cardboard reports that VR apps are being downloaded more than 25 million times. Google’s Daydream should quickly enable hundreds of millions of phones to power great VR experiences. I’m excited to see what Oculus shares at Connect to continue this momentum.

Over the next few years, tens of millions of folks will have Vive / Oculus / Playstation VR at home or in their offices, as well as a Gear VR next to their beds. Beyond the total number of users, we should see meaningful amounts of time spent “inside” of VR as it captures more people’s attention. In fact, the question I am most often asked is: What are the killer apps beyond games and entertainment content? This is a strong indication that everyone is now searching for the next set of killer VR apps.

Venture-backed high growth companies are often successful because they bet on new platform shifts ahead of incumbents. Recent examples include Salesforce and Whatsapp. An increasing number of smart, curious entrepreneurs are investing substantial time exploring VR opportunities. Some promising applications areas I keep hear them outside of Games and Entertainment verticals include:

  • User-Generated Content – New mediums require new ways of telling and discovering compelling stories. There is heavy investment from incumbent media companies both in-house and via strategic investments. If you look back in time at web and mobile platform innovations, a key area of value creation were user-generated content platforms, YouTube and Facebook, that paired easy creation (or upload) with audience networks. Google’s acquisition of Tiltbrush pre-empted the first clear opportunity in this category There are many great teams thinking about this category.
  • Communication – Every new medium has created a massive new communication company. In the 1990s, Hotmail created web-based free consumer email. In the 2000s, Skype created a free global telecommunication platform, and later, WhatsApp & Facebook Messenger created the industry’s largest free text messaging networks. History indicates being a nimble startup focused on communication is a great
  • Workplace Collaboration – Companies, especially ones focused on knowledge workers, are willing to pay a premium to enable greater employee productivity. For example, engineers often use a whiteboard to collaborate, but when the team isn’t physically collocated, it doesn’t work. VR enables shared whiteboard experiences that could increase productivity by light years.
  • Training and Education – My single favorite VR impact story is how a surgeon used Google Cardboard to prepare for a complex, pediatric operation that had never been performed before. Dr. Redmond Burke used a 3D model of the infant’s heart to “view” how it was situated in her chest cavity to plan out the surgery, and he saved the baby’s life. Whether it is practicing a hobby, improving a vocational skill, or preparing for a high stakes operation, VR can help.
  • Considered Purchase Tools – Just as the internet radically changed how consumers turned from physical stores to ecommerce, VR can drive a massive shift in purchasing behavior. Audi’s Virtual Showroom offers shoppers with an innovative way to visualize every detail of a car in VR before they customize their car and place an order. It’s an amazing buying experience.

Of course, these ideas are just a few of the possibilities. Risk-taking entrepreneurs are rapidly exploring many more killer application ideas which I’m excited to learn about!

TechCrunch VR Post

I’ve taken the red pill and am a VR believer. Shared some of what I’ve learned so far on TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2015/12/15/getting-real-about-virtual-reality/.

Re posting the article here too:

Hacking together a VR experience* to see firsthand what’s involved, revealed just how close we are to something great, but there are five areas that need to fall into place for VR to become a technology we all use daily.

The medium needs to be defined

As I started to think about the kind of immersive experience to create, I realized that I didn’t even know how to think about the right way to tell a story in VR. For instance, how long should the “story” be? What would be considered important?

As an engineer, I rarely considered something like the best point of view for the camera. With VR, that’s a critical part of the experience.

Creating something for VR is less of a technical problem than it is a creative and visual challenge. Additionally, the ability to create 3D models for VR stories is going to be one of the most highly sought after skills in the world in the next 10 years. As a reference point, think how different our current era is from the early days of the Internet, when we used things like FTP and Gopher. That’s the stage where we are with VR.

VR interaction needs to be improved

VR has immersive visuals and great VR content has incredible sound design. But even though your body feels like it’s somewhere else, how are we supposed to interact with that world? And how is the VR world supposed to interact with us and provide feedback?

Using a mouse, keyboard, or game pad to navigate the virtual world makes for a terrible user experience. It completely severs the connection between your mind and (virtual) body. Beyond basic input so much more has to be solved with regard to tactile input and output, full body motion, the sense of smell, and temperature.

The list goes on and on for the things that must get fixed to avoid breaking the VR experience.

The fear factor must pass

Although people accept that we’re in the early stages of the VR era, some folks are warning about unhealthy escapism that will remove us further from reality to the point where we are dangerously disconnected from the real word.

I get it, but aren’t we already there? Go to the mall and you’ll see people of all ages and backgrounds, with their heads down staring at their phones. Do they know what’s going on around them? Doubtful. Then again, the human species often doesn’t understand the consequences of what it invents until decades later.

When the fear factor kicks in, just consider this: We’re only a decade into the mobile phone age and it probably will take another 25 years to know what we really did to ourselves.

Portability needs to become the norm

My friend Chris Fralik is entirely right when he explains why mobile will win the VR race. The mobile phone represents the easiest and fastest VR platform.

I’m not just talking about using smartphones to demo VR, but also as the best way to get the largest number of people to use VR daily.  I am impatient for Moore’s law to eliminate the need to be tethered to a desktop computer.

The barrier of entry has to be eliminated

Investors ought to pay close attention. The big breakout for VR isn’t here yet, but we’re getting close. By the end of 2016, estimates are that more than 10 million people will be using VR. If startups can build rich experiences that users can access through their phones, the numbers will soar faster than anyone can predict.

I’m hopeful that the market will get a boost from major manufacturers like Apple or Samsung including a Cardboard-like viewer with every smartphone they sell, and more cardboard viewer giveaways occur.

There’s obviously a lot of work ahead before we get to the VR promised land, and after that to AR nirvana, but the promise is undeniable.

Imagine the possibilities once humans are freed from the confines of physical space and can connect with anyone anywhere in the world. After all, there’s a good reason why Mark Zuckerberg paid $2 billion to buy Oculus.

*I hope to repeat this exercise for AR in 2016, as platforms were not yet ready.

Mast Mobile

Mast Countdown, NYC

It’s a proud moment to see Mast Mobile launch today. Mast is a mobile communication platform that makes employees more productive and saves businesses time and money by replacing the need for desktop phones. It does this all by being built into the core mobile carrier network, yeah, the cell phone towers themselves, so it can work with any mobile device including iPhones, Android, and anything else you can throw at it.

I co-founded Mast prior to joining DFJ, and today my role is as the non-executive Chairman of the Board. Mast Mobile got off the ground because of an amazing group of co-founders: David Messenger and Peter Lurie, both with prior experience from Virgin Mobile, Sprint, American Express, as well as one of the best technology leaders I’ve ever had a chance to work with, David Dawson formerly from Microsoft.  They are the dream leaders for this business and it has been a joy to watch them build Mast over the last few years.

How did this all come together?

In 2013 I had my first conversation with David Messenger, and it was clear to me that he was built in a lab to take the nascent ideas behind Mast, build upon it with his unique insights, and lead it into a huge company one day.  A bit about David: He was the #2 guy at Virgin Mobile, and helped take them public. He also went on to run Sprint’s pre-paid mobile group after they acquired Virgin Mobile. Next, David went to American Express to lead the newly formed enterprise mobile and online business. We turned that first lunch conversation into a three-month collaboration that made it clear to both of us that David was the only person in the world that could be the heart, soul, and CEO of Mast Mobile.

So what the hell did we talk about?

I shared the painful experience I had working with the big four mobile carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) while evangelizing Android internally at Facebook. Since everyone had iPhones, I started by just trying to get everyone to carry a second Android phone hoping they’d use it and thus start to understand what was possible on the platform. I found that the fast way to get someone a second working Android phone was to buy the phones at the local Verizon or AT&T retail stores. Of course the finance team had fits at my expense reports, but the alternative would often take a few weeks. I needed to move fast and was fine breaking things.

However, it was quickly obvious no one was using his or her Android phones. I needed to sort out a better plan with our IT team to get both a variety of Android phones on demand, as well as a simple way for people to port their primary phone number onto Android phones. From this exercise I learned more about how terrible it was to get phones and phone lines provisioned with the big four carriers. It turned out the best way to get things to happen was to actually call someone at each wireless carrier’s corporate sales team for any new phone, phone line, or phone number port.  Imagine if the only way to get a new email address for an employee was to call Google or Microsoft to provision one? Cray cray!

Eventually things got sorted out well enough that it wasn’t my biggest concern anymore. But the experience left a strong impression. I made a mental note to angel invest in any startup that would fix the quagmire of wireless carriers servicing corporations. I never found one.

Fast-forward eighteen months to when I was thinking what to do after Facebook.  My experience building on Android left me frustrated with the iOS platform constraints since I knew it was critical that whatever I built worked on both platforms. I was especially fascinated with what could be done with call and text message data, since the majority of communication was shifting to mobile devices (damn, should have started WhatsApp). Researching what was possible was how the concept of a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) came onto my radar.

MVNOs lease access to the radio access networks (the cell towers) of wireless carriers like Verizon. If you could get an MVNO deal in place, you could access every call and text made by one of your subscribers, regardless of whether they used iOS, Android, or even a shoe phone. Amazingly, this meant there was a whole platform layer underneath smartphone OSes waiting to be used! That is, if you were willing to run an MVNO.

There was the rub. Almost every MVNO ever started had been a commercial disaster. Billions of dollars had been lost which left deep, ugly scar tissue on almost everyone associated with them. By digging in to why they failed, I discovered a simple truth: you can’t out outsell the AT&Ts of the world as an MVNO reselling the same commodity product to the same customers.

But you can compete with carriers by putting software in the middle of their core network to enable new differentiated products. Thus Mast would never be in the business of selling minutes but instead selling software applications that are uniquely integrated into mobile networks. With enough customers it would be a new technology platform with an entirely new business model that can give away access!

My experience at Facebook made it clear that the big four mobile carriers didn’t care about business customers. Even as businesses were increasingly dependent on mobile service for employee productivity.  Leaders at fast growing startups validated this over a series of direct interviews. They were universally frustrated with the experience, quality, and costs of the big four mobile carriers.

David wholeheartedly agreed after I shared this over our lunch. We became convinced that the perfect storm had come together to build a company by closely collaborating to interview more customers, recruit our awesome co-founders Peter & David, and raise our first outside capital in 2013. Today, the entire Mast Mobile team is launching something truly differentiated after years of hard work.  I’m incredibly lucky to be a small part of the Mast story!