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November 29, 2007

Thinking Big

Scott Kirsner wrote a great post on an event last night on Thinking Big in Massachusetts.  Getting these big companies to stay anchored in Massachusetts is critical for long-term economic development.  We need some new companies that have the potential to become the next wave of these 'anchor tenant' companies.

Getting this to happen requires a combination of great ideas, great entrepreneurs who are willing to go for the big win and put at risk a more modest win for themselves, and VCs who have the guts to also go for the big win rather than a more sure M&A exit.  But, it starts with an idea for a new market segment that can be based here.  These new companies need an ecosystem around them of smaller companies that they can partner with and probably acquire, building up a center of excellence in the Boston area.

Perhaps the energy sector is one where this can happen.  Or, maybe someone out there has a better idea...

Good2gether is launching

I have mentioned good2gether many times on The Fein Line.  They have a new web site that describes what they are doing and also announces some seminars they are doing for non-profits in Boston in December.  They'll be holding similar events in other cities as they launch into the market in 2008.

Good2gether is a media company that brings unique content (information from non-profits on volunteer opportunities and ways to contribute) to mass media markets (through the largest local web sites in each city), with sponsorship and support from large consumer brands.  Everyone wins:

  • The non-profits get free exposure to a large online audience and gets to help their supporters connect, recommend, and communicate
  • The large local sites, many newspaper sponsored such as boston.com, get to sell sponsorships for high-traffic real estate and monetize unique content that isn't available broadly on the web
  • The brands get to associate themselves with good causes with broad public exposure and gets to keep their brand in front of cause supporters throughout all the communications

Check out good2gether.  If you are a non-profit in Boston, you should attend their local seminar in December.

November 28, 2007

Globe Santa Update

As of today, there has been $650 donated on Facebook and $600 donated directly on Globesanta.org as part of this fundraising effort.  Thanks to everyone for your support and generosity.  Please don't hesitate to inveite your friends to join the cause on Facebook, either.  Just click here.

Or, you can donate on the Globe Santa web site and forward me the confirmation of your donation.  I'll match all the donations from my network made on Facebook or directly to Globe Santa, up to $5000.

$1250 down, another $3750 to go (at least!).

Shut Up and Sell!

In a conversation with a colleague today, I was reminded of a phrase I was taught by an old sales mentor of mine -- "Shut Up and Sell".  I don't think that my friend invented this phrase, but it is great advice.

I was in sales for seven years, and it was great training.  I learned sales at the tried and true Professional Selling Skills course -- highly recommended (at least in its 1985 incarnation!).  The most important lesson in sales is that you sell by listening, not by talking.  You obviously have to ask questions to get your prospect to talk, but then you should spend time listening to understand what their real needs are.  This skill applies whether you are selling cars or negotiating with your spouse!

I always recommend sales experience for any person who wants to be in marketing, business development, or general management.  You don't know what business is really like until you have to overcome rejection with just your own personal skills.  If you have been skeptical of sales people and think that they don't do anything, I suggest you give it a try yourself.  You'll see that it isn't as easy as it looks...

When I was coming out of college with my engineering degree, I interviewed for a couple of technical sales jobs.  I didn't have a chance as I didn't know how to sell.  I remember one interview where the only thing the interviewer said was "Sell me this pen."  I can definitely do it now, but at the time I knew that I should stick with software engineering for a while.

I don't know where the Shut Up and Sell phrase came from originally, but here is a nice short article I found that has some practical tips for shutting up and selling more.

November 26, 2007

Sports Thoughts - Pats and Celts

Oh, it's a good time to be a Boston sports fan.  I follow the Patriots and Celtics closely and go to a lot of their games.  Some thoughts on recent happenings:

Patriots: The Patriots won a close game yesterday against the Eagles.  This preserves the Patriots unbeaten season at 11-0, but I am sure that a lot of fans are disappointed.  The Patriots had won their previous games by an average of 25 points per game (including a 4-point win over the Colts).  So, a 3-point win feels like a letdown.  And, the pointspreads on the Patriots games have gotten ridiculous.  How can the Eagles be 24-point underdogs?  That's like saying that the Eagles are average compared to the teams the Pats have beaten this year.  We saw last night that the Eagles are still a good team.  I did expect the Pats to win more easily, but 20+ pointspreads are ridiculous in the pros.

By the way, don't think that a couple of close games hurt the Patriots legacy vs. some of the other teams considered the greatest of all time.  The 1985 Chicago Bears actually LOST one game, to the Dolphins 38-24.  They also had 6 and 7 point wins (and a lot of blowouts).  They only allowed 11.5 points per game and won their first two playoff games by shutouts (and crushed the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX).

The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only team to go undefeated through a full NFL season (so far!).  They had wins of 2 points, 1 point, and 4 points (and 52 points vs. the Patriots!).  To be fair, they played most of their season with their back-up quarterback (Earl Morrall) instead of Hall of Famer Bob Greise.  They were very run-oriented, with two 1,000 yard backs, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick.

They Pats are almost as dominating as the 1985 Bears.  If they go undefeated, they certainly join this pantheon of greatest teams ever.  Even if they lose one game, they may belong there.

By the way, if the Patriots only go 3-2 in their last five games, they will still clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Celtics: They Celtics are off to a great start.  They have also won two close games, including Saturday night's last second come-from-behind victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.  I'm impressed with how quickly the Celtics have jelled given how many new players they have.  And, they have a decent bench with some NBA veterans like James Posey, Eddie House, and Scott Pollard.  The Celtics have an interesting stretch of games coming up against the Cavaliers (twice), the Miami Heat (who almost beat the Celtics earlier this season), and the Knicks (always a circus). 

I love how the Celtics are playing, with lots of passing leading to easy baskets.  If you check out the stats, you'll see that the Celtics lead the league in assist differential (the number of assists the Celtics have per game vs. the number of assists that their opponents have).  The Celtics average 24.41 assists per game, and their opponents only have 17.  The Celtics are third in the league in assists and first in giving up the fewest.  This is indicative of getting a lot of easy baskets and not allowing the same by the opponents.  Sounds like a good recipe for success to me.  And, fun to watch.

November 25, 2007

Horror Show

If you want to get real scared, check out these videos and presentations on the growing federal deficit.

I first heard about the Fiscal Wakeup Tour on NPR.  There is a traveling group of economists from across the ideological spectrum who agree that the federal deficit is going to mushroom out of control over the next 40+ years.  They are doing a series of talks about what is causing this.  The only solutions are some combination of tax increases and spending cuts.  The amount of each depends on your political point of view.  All of them agree that there is no 'free lunch' solution like growing out of the deficits.

The deficits are based on the aging population and the growth of medical costs vs. GDP growth.  These issues compound to make Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid grow to become huge unless they are structurally changed.  The main goal of these talks is to educate voters so that they can insist that Presidential candidates address this in the current election cycle.

For a short form of the problem, you can check out the Fiscal Wakeup Tour web site.  There you can check out some of the videos and presentations from one tour stop at Georgia State.  My favorite talk is this one from David Walker (slides, video), Comptroller General of the United States.  Here is one slide from his presentation that shows that the government has committed $50 TRILLION in long-term expenditures, which is about equal to the total household net worth of the country.  In other words, as individuals, we're technically broke.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you can't put your head in the sand on this one.  It's clear to me that we have to come up with a way to cut the growth of medical costs, which is the overall driver in this problem.  That will probably mean that care will have to be managed and that expensive new treatments may not be available to everyone without some level of control.  That may be tough to swallow, but having taxes grow to unprecedented levels doesn't sound very palatable, either.

Think about this problem when you are deciding who to back for President in 2008.

Globe Santa Update

It took a while, but I finally got all of my "invitations" out to Globe Santa.  I invited people on Facebook, LinkedIn, and via email.  It's hard to do mass invites on these things as they all have various mechanisms to avoid spam.  It's understandable, but it made it more work than I reckoned for.

So far, my Facebook Cause has 11 members and $275 donated.  Another offline donor (thanks, Dad!) gave $25.  So, $300 total, and we're just getting started.

You can join the Cause on Facebook here.  Or, give directly to Globe Santa and email me the receipt.  I am going to match all donations, up to $5000.

There's some history of Globe Santa in today's Boston Globe.  It's a simple idea -- provide toys for poor children who would otherwise get nothing during the holiday season.  It spreads hope and good cheer.  Most of us have so much that we can easily spare something for someone who has so little.

Happy holidays, and thanks for your support.

November 21, 2007

When they say No...

Brad Feld wrote a post entitled "Don't Ask for a Referral If I Say No."  Good insight there into the mindset of a VC who tries to do an entrepreneur a favor by giving them a rapid 'No', but is then conflicted when asked to give the entrepreneur some additional help with VC introductions.

Too many VCs are hesitant to say No to an entrepreneur.  They prefer to preserve the option to invest later if the deal starts to look better (or if others get interested).  It's much tougher, but better for the entrepreneur, to give a No once you have decided to pass.  This saves the entrepreneur time.  I always tried to give feedback when I gave a No to a deal.  Maybe the target market wasn't interesting to me.  Maybe the deal didn't meet my firm's investment targets.  Maybe I didn't believe some of the assumptions behind the plan.  I try to be as open and direct as possible, probably only holding back when it was the entrepreneur themself who is the problem.  Maybe I'd say -- the team needs strengthening...

All of this feedback is my opinion.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But, if a VC says No, they have made up their mind.  It's not productive to try to change their mind through lots of follow-up.  If you want to keep me posted via an occasional email about your progress, that's fine.  Maybe we can meet again in six months or so.  But, don't try to overcome my feedback as if they were sales objections.  That's not the dynamic that is in play.

Also, as Brad says, asking for an introduction to another VC is a bad idea.  Unless the deal just isn't in a sector where my firm invests, I have to tell the VC that I passed and why.  I need to be honest with them as it's part of my relationship with them on sharing deals.  Instead, try to improve your plan and presentation first, and then get a trusted introduction to other VCs from their own non-VC contact network.  That's much more valuable.

You can get a lot out of a No from a VC.  Just not introductions to other VCs.

November 19, 2007

Thanks, Scott, but...

Scott Kirsner from the Globe has done a great job writing about the start-up and VC scene in Boston for the Globe.  I always enjoy talking to him.

Although I haven't mentioned it here, I am in the process of getting a new investment firm off the ground.  But, we are still in stealth mode for a variety of reasons.  Today, Scott wrote a blog post about our activities that is directionally correct, but not totally accurate.  I very much appreciate the interest, Scott, but can't comment further until we are ready to be more public in our activities.

In the meantime, how about making a donation to Globe Santa?

What a Weekend!

Pretty busy weekend for me:

  • Went to the Celtics-Heat game on Friday.  The Celtics have been flat lately (and finally lost yesterday to the Orlando Magic).  But, they pulled this game out at the end.  On the way to the Garden, my son said "the Celtics games are getting boring because they win by so much.  I'd love to see a close game."  He got what we wanted!  Glad to see Paul Pierce as the go-to guy at the end.  He's done that for so many years now for the Celtics.
  • On Saturday, I brought my daughter to Splash at MIT.  This is a great program run by MIT students that is aimed at teaching something fun to kids age 11-17.  They have some serious academic enrichment courses, but most of them are just fun.  My daughter learned how to bake pies, how to draw shiny objects (and deal with reflecting light), card tricks, and the history of dark chocolate.  She had a great time, and got some exposure to what it is like walking around a college campus.  Our son has participated in years past, too.  This program is inexpensive and open to the public.  If you live in the Boston area and have kids in middle school or high school, I suggest you check it out next November.
  • Sunday night I went to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Garden in Boston.  What a fantastic show!  I hadn't seen Springsteen in a while.  I am amazed at the amount of energy he expends in a 2 hour 15 minute show that does not stop.  Bruce and his band go from one song to the next with nary a breath.  Lots of energy in the Garden, too, with the audience singing along to every word.  He puts on a great show.
  • While at the concert, I was getting text message updates to the Celtics (who lost their first game) and the Patriots (who killed the Bills).

Needless to say, I am pretty tired today.  I normally catch up on my sleep on the weekends, but not this time.  Early to bed for me tonight.,..

November 15, 2007

Email - Social Networking for the Masses

If you are plugged into the blogosphere, you may have read a bunch of stuff recently about email really being the big social network that most people aren't paying attention to.  Here are a few recent posts from bloggers I follow:

Tom Evslin

Om Malik

Brad Feld

Fred Wilson

Don Dodge

and, the New York Times

What all this means to me is that the new social networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) really only capture a fraction of the population.  And, I am skeptical that this style of social networking will rapidly expand beyond the younger generation and technically savvy users.  It will happen eventually, but I don't see a lot of people my age actively jumping into social networking, other than those in the industry like me.

Instead, email is the digital communications means that almost everyone has adopted.  Email contact lists show who are 'friends' are, although there isn't mutual permission to 'friend' someone like you have in Facebook.  There are also some new tools, like Xobni, that help you understand and manage email connections.  I used LinkedIn a lot to manage business contacts, and I find that their Outlook plug in helps me capture the social connections from my emails as well as remind me whom I might need to follow-up with and whom I haven't connected with for a while.

The only way that these types of social networking capabilities get adopted by the masses is if it is transparent and easy.  Leveraging the wealth of data in our own email is the easiest way to get started.  Whether the existing email providers find a way to do this or whether some entrepreneurs come up with the best way to do this remains to be seen.  I think that there are great opportunities here, both on the client side and the server side.

November 14, 2007

Globe Santa

As I have in the past, I am supporting and raising money for Globe Santa.  This is one of my favorite charities.  What is Globe Santa?

Since 1956, Globe Santa has been The Boston Globe's annual appeal for needy children in Greater Boston. The Globe Santa Fund collects donations from readers and advertisers to purchase holiday gifts for underprivileged children. The Globe pays administrative costs and provides space in the newspaper during the holiday season to publish stories about family needs and list the names of people who give. In recent years, Globe Santa has received more than $1 million dollars in contributions annually. The program helps brighten the holiday season for more than 28,000 families and 55,000 children in 167 communities every year.

*Families request toys by writing to Globe Santa, stating their family size and need. This need must be verified and countersigned by a social service or religious agency that has previously registered with Globe Santa Fund. The agency must have documented records of the particular family's situation. The deadline for family letters this year is December 7, 2007.
*Agencies that can verify requests include welfare offices, hospitals, churches and clergy, halfway houses, AFDC office and similar social service organizations.
*Agencies must register with Globe Santa each year. The registration procedure is announced in the Boston Globe and by mail to agencies that registered in the previous year. The deadline for agency registration this year is October 31.
*Families apply for assistance during October and November. The application procedure is published in detail in ads in the Globe that run from October 1 through December 7, 2007.
*Toys are delivered to family households beginning the first week in December right up to two days before Christmas.

I like Globe Santa because it is a simple concept, the Globe picks up all the administrative costs, and there is something special about giving a kid a happy holiday season when they otherwise would get nothing.  We all have so much (relatively), and even small donations add up.  If you read the Globe when they start publishing their donations, you'll see that they take all donations, large and small. 

I set up a Cause in Facebook to capture donations.  You can also donate directly at the Globe Santa web site.  I plan to match all the donations from my audience, up to a maximum of $5000.  If you go through Facebook, I can track this directly.  If you give directly on the Globe Santa site, forward me your email receipt so I can keep track.  I'll post periodic updates on my progress.

Some people enjoy having me write a big check when I match this.  So, please, Make Mike Pay!

November 13, 2007

Rock Band is Comin'

My friends at Harmonix are about to release their long awaited game, Rock Band (make sure your speakers are on!).  The Globe has a nice article about it here.

I play Guitar Hero (I and II) regularly.  I'm not very good at it, but I have a good time.  Rock Band takes it to another level.  There are multiple instruments and vocals.  I love that Harmonix games get you up off the couch to play.  And, it's fun to either cooperate or compete with your friends.

Here's a Rock Band demo.



November 08, 2007

For my friends in NYC - Mike Daisey

For my friends who live in or near NY:

You should go see Mike Daisey perform.  I wrote about Mike a while back when he was at the ART in Cambridge (video review from WGBH here -- gives you a sense of Mike's style).  Mike is an amazing monologuist.  You would never believe how engaging a guy sitting at a table and just talking can be.  He's intelligent, expressive, and very funny.

Mike is performing his show Great Men of Genius.  Tickets are here.  Audio sample is here.


Celtics - Wow!

I went to the Celtics-Nuggets game last night.  The Celtics won by 26, and the game wasn't really that close.  Check out the video at the link above (no way to embed, unfortunately).  You'll see some great passing and an unselfish team.  The Celtics were up by 41 in the 3rd quarter (91-50), and stopped playing hard from then on.  The Celtics scrubs looked pretty sloppy, but the 9-man rotation is very solid.

What I liked the most was that the big players, although they haven't been together long, are really playing well together on offsense and defense.  I always knew that Kevin Garnett was great, but it's hard for me to imagine that some other player today is better than KG.  He is tall, athletic, fast, a great rebounder, great defender, a scorer, a passer, and very high-energy.  He was talking constructively to his teammates throughout the game.  He didn't forgive himself for messing up a play before he came out of the game, even though he had great numbers and the win was in hand.

My last few years of being a Celtic season ticket holder are paying off.  This is going to be a very, very good team.  I love the chemistry I saw on the court.  Let's hope they all stay healthy.

Open With Care

There has been a lot of activity over the past few months about things getting more open:

These were and are all big things.  And, there are probably many others I missed.  But, these are particularly interesting to me.

Facebook really started the latest wave by opening up their API.  This allows developers to leverage the Facebook user base and, to some extent, user data, in producing applications.  This seems to be most interesting for existing applications that extend themselves into the Facebook world to attract additional users and provide more value for their users.  In this case, Facebook is a kind of channel partner.  And, the access to Facebook data makes the application more useful for users, leveraging their preferences and social connections.

The recent Google announcements show Google flexing their muscles to move into new areas.  Open Social is Google's response to Facebook's success (and Microsoft's investment in Facebook).  Google is the only company that has the financial strength and market position to really take on Microsoft in big new areas.  I don't know if Open Social will really wrestle the social networking momentum away from Facebook.  Instead, I think that it will forece Facebook to find a way to work with Open Social, which is probably good for developers and users.

Android is an even bigger deal.  Google is trying to turn the cell phone business on its ear, taking control away from the closed carriers, like Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and from the phone OS providers, including RIM (Blackberry), Apple (iPhone), and Microsoft.  This is more focused on smart phones, which I think will become more and more common.  These smart phones can become full featured, with lots of data access and innovative applications that take advantage of the almost-always-on connected nature of wireless devices.

There are plenty of places where you can read more about all these announcements.  One thing I have been thinking about is what all this means for new start-ups.

Opening up these big platforms is a good thing for consumers and makes it easy for developers to create new applications.  But, it also means that a developer has to build more and add more value to create a business with a long-term sustainable advantage.  I have met entrepreneurs who are building a Facebook app and think that can be a company.  No way!  You can't build something in a week or a month and have that be enough to give you any long-term advantage.  Advantage comes from a combination of:

  • Technology (but less and less so).  You need some significant new invention or a unique combination of technologies to have real value
  • Unique partnerships (supplier, customers, distribution, etc.)
  • Unique mixture of skills on the team
  • Customer base that isn't likely to move (but getting this is hard)
  • A target market that is significant and growing (and/or changing)

A strong opportunity needs a portion of all of these, or at least the potential to end up with all of these.  That doesn't come about without a lot of time and effort.  A compelling team can build confidence that you can end up with this.  A bootstrapped company with a fast-growing user base may be able to continue to grow.  And, existing partnerships are pretty hard to beat.  Short of that, you need to keep working before an investor is likely to think that you can build something big.

November 06, 2007

TED Video: Great discussion of creative freedom

I really enjoyed this video from the TED conference of Stanford professor Larry Lessig discussing creative freedom.  He draws some analogies from the impact of other technological changes on the law.  It makes a good case that we need to change how we look at copyright law, both in terms of making sure we harness creative freedom while not trampling on the rights owners.  And, it's entertaining.  Definitely worth watching.


Just real crowd noise

By the way, since I was in the RCA Dome for the Colts-Pats game, I thought I should say that I didn't notice anything unusual about the crowd noise.  It seemed to be just all-natural crowd screaming every time the Pats had the ball.  I never noticed the crowd noise being out of synch with the crowd behavior.  In fact, I found that the music and the announcements at the RCA Dome were at a much lower volume than at Gillette.  And, they failed to show replays of any play except non-controversial positive plays for the Colts.  So, I plan to watch the replay of the game, condensed version, on the NFL Network tomorrow night at 8 PM.

November 05, 2007

Back from Indy

I had a great time in Indianapolis, highlighted by attending the Patriots 24-20 victory over the Colts.  The RCA Dome is very, very loud.  I could barely talk to my friend sitting next to me in the second to last row of the stadium.  I can't imagine how Brady and his teammates could communicate.

The fans in Indianapolis are very, very friendly.  And, they are proud of their hospitality.  I am sorry to say that some of the folks I talked so said that they hadn't been treated the same way when they visited Boston.  It's OK to boo the opponents, but please be nice to their fans!

I liked Indy.  I hadn't been there before, but thougt it was a nice city.  The RCA Dome is right in the center of downtown.  There is no tailgating scene, but there is plenty of activity pre-and post-game.  Lots of fun.

November 02, 2007

Down the DirecTV Rabbit Hole

It all started when we wanted to upgrade our last couple of TVs to HD.  I knew that DirecTV was about to roll out a bunch of new HD channels by year-end.  My old Tivos were grinding to a halt after years of service (and some swapped hard drives).  DirecTV's new HD channels would be in MPEG-4 format, and the only way to get them was to get new receivers and new HD DVRs.

But, when my installers got all this new stuff set up, we had some problems.  We have a complicated setup, and I won't go into the details.  But, the complexity of everything we wanted to do required me to do some research on how other people had solved problems similar to mine.  A quick search brought me to DBStalk.

This online community of DBS (direct broadcast satellite) devotees was a treasure trove of information.  I got sucked in and wanted to learn everything I could about my new HD equipment, how to get OTA (over the air) HD signals, and how to share all this between the various TVs in my house. 

I wish that the information in these forums was more accessible.  There is some basic search, but you have to do a lot of poking around to find some real information.  Luckily, some dedicated participants maintain some FAQ documents that compile a lot of the best tips and tricks.

But, the thing that blew me away was the Cutting Edge program.  As is detailed in this article from HDTV magazine that covers the evolution of the HR20-700 HD DVR over its first year of deployment, the Cutting Edge program is a beta test program run by people outside of DirecTV.  It's run by the lead participants of the DBStalk site.

DirecTV cooperates with thes users for the deployment and support of beta software releases that unlock new features of their products.  They have beta versions of software for all of their current receivers.  This has led to them bringing out new general releases about once every two months with lots of new features rolling out over the past year.

Most recently, I downloaded a beta test version of a new DirecTV On Demand video on demand capability.  This service works great and will be rolling out nationally soon.  But, I am blown away that a big company like DirecTV can be so aggressive in embracing its user base and its most committed customers.  This is helping DirecTV get more functionality out faster and keeps me even more loyal.  I can't imagine Comcast doing this (or Verizon).

The lesson for any company, big or small, is to get close to your customers, encourage them to communicate with each other, and listen carefully.  Find a way to harness their enthusiasm so you can continue to improve your product.

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