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November 29, 2009

Best of Both Worlds at the ART

We went to the third production of the American Repertory Theater's Shakespeare Exploded festival last night -- Best of Both Worlds.  I wrote up some thoughts on the ART web site, but will expand on a few things here.

First, an overall summary -- Best of Both Worlds is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with two R&B "kings" taking the place of the two kings in the original.  There isn't a lot of Shakespearean text in the production and the entire show, including the narration, is set to music.  The narration was almost too detailed for my taste, but I made a point of becoming familiar with the plot of the original before I went.  That may not really be necessary with this level of narration.

The highlight of the show is the singing.  All of the leads are fantastically talented singers and actors.  The emotional high-points of the show, both positive and negative, were driven home by great performances.  And, the overall use of R&B and gospel music was great.  Even during the depressing first act, the music was enjoyable.

There is a stark contrast with the second act which is humorous, campy, and, ultimately uplifting.  The show is pitched as a family show, but I don't think so.  There are themes of adultery, prostitution, abandoning your children, etc., which I wouldn't want to expose to kids younger than their mid-teens.  Kids of all ages wuold enjoy the humor and music, but parents of young kids would cringe too many times at the adult themes.

On the ART site, there were several comments that the play was racially insensitive.  One commenter draw a comparison to the 19th century Minstrel Shakespeare which demoralized African Americans of the day.  I am not familiar with that, but I didn't find anything offensive at the show.  And, there were a good number of African American audience members, a real rarity for the ART.  They seemed to enjoy the show as well.  As my friend pointed out, some people feel that the only way to avoid racism is to hide the differences between the cultures of different races.  I feel exactly the opposite -- we should all appreciate, accept, revel in, and even be able to laugh at all that makes us who we are.

Overall, I thought this was fantastic musical theater.  The plot is interesting, the Shakespearean links are pretty tight, and the singing and acting are world class.  The show mixes a wide range of emotions with an uplifting and redemptive ending.  It's not realistic, but, then again, neither is much of Shakespeare.  The show is much more about the themes of trust and realizing your own errors of judgment.  With that, the R&B and gospel music will open it up to a much wider audience than a typical Shakespeare play.

November 25, 2009

Try Sweeties!

If you live in Indy, check out the new bakery, Sweeties Gourmet Treats.  I tried this place when I visited Indianapolis recently.  It was started by Tiffany Colvin, the wife of ex-New England Patriot Rosevelt Colvin.

I got to know Rosevelt through LinkedIn.  He's quite a good entrepreneur.  When we visited Sweeties during their grand opening, Rosevelt was very hands-on, helping the staff fill orders and work with customers.  He was nice enough to spend some time with us, talking about the upcoming Colts-Patriots game at that time.

I love seeing real entrepreneurs in action.  He had invested money in getting the bakery started and was there for the start.  It may not become a huge business, but these are the types of companies that keep a lot of people employed.

And. more importantly, they have delightful sweets.  Try the Turtle Brownie!

Keeping the Droid

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my first impressions of the Motorola Droid phone.  Now that I've worked with it for another two weeks, I made the final decision to keep it as my only phone.  Here's why:

  • I like the form factor -- it's a large touch screen with a slider keyboard.  The size and weight are fine.
  • It's very fast and responsive.  Also, it's been pretty reliable in terms of software stability.
  • Voice quality is very good (with one caveat below)
  • I really like the Android OS.  There are plenty of apps, and new ones all the time.  I really wanted to be on an open platform that's going to stay current for a while.
  • Also, Android offers a very rich interface with lots of shortcuts and multiple ways of doing things.  Very handy and efficient to use.

I identified a few issues before, most of which I have overcome.

  • I'm now used to the keyboard.  It's not optimal, but it works fine.  I can type fairly quickly with minimal errors.
  • I decided to purchase Touchdown from NitroDesk for my Outlook/Exchange email/calendar/contacts.  It's a big improvement over the built-in Exchange email that's part of Android 2.0.  Specifically, it let's you move email to folders, respond to appointment requests, and synch your tasks.  It's not perfect, but worth the $10.  Email and calendar are still the biggest reasons I have a PDA.
  • Battery life greatly improved when I turned off background data synchronization.  Android opens up lots of apps and they'll keep making data requests if you let them.  With the fast Verizon 3G network, there's much less of a need to keep the data trickling in through the background.
  • I used an application called Apps Organizer to categorize my applications and organize them on the desktop.  This saved a lot of desktop space and makes the '3 pane' desktop more than sufficient.

Some things I learned:

  • There is a software bug in the current release that causes the person you are on the phone with to hear a significant echo.  You can workaround this by turning the phone speaker on and off.  You don't have to do this every call, but only once in a while.  This will be fixed in the software update planned for December 11.  A bit of a nuisance, but only for a couple more weeks.
  • You should change the voice codec from the default to EVRC-B.  This made my mumbling a bit easier to understand for those I called.
  • You don't have to buy the fancy Motorola docks to put your phone into the media player or car navigator modes.  The phone comes with an app called Car Home which does the navigator.  And, there is a free app called DockRunner which puts it into the media player mode.
  • New apps come all the time.  One thing I gave up with my Windows mobile phone was the DirecTV Supercast application to stream live NFL games if you get NFL Sunday Ticket Superfan.  Within a few days of getting the phone, DirecTV released an Android version.  And, DirecTV seems to be testing other new Android apps, too.
  • At least for now, Verizon has a Twitter feed called DroidDoes with helpful tips.  They may cancel this, but I think that they have heard from users that they should keep it going.

I tried an iPhone and couldn't get comfortable typing with it.  And, I don't use my phone as my primary music player, so sync'ing the Droid with iTunes wasn't important (and there's an app for that which I haven't tried).  Overall, I think that the Droid is the best package of features for a smartphone.  I'm happy, at least for a while.

November 24, 2009

No one looked under the Canopy

A very interesting story has emerged in the last few days about a venture-backed company called Canopy (coverage from TechCrunch and peHUB).

It looks like management defrauded the investors by lying about the company's financials.  There was an auditor hired, but no audit done.  Now the VCs have all pulled the company from their websites, which is never a good sign.

This is a company that raised a lot of money and, until recently, employed a lot of people.  Now it is likely to be stuck in a lot of litigation in and among investors and employees.

I don't know anything about this situation, but I've been on enough boards to know that if management wants to fool you, you can be fooled.  Board members rely on what they hear from the management team and, unless they slip up, you can be fooled for a while.  The surprising thing is that, if this is the level of fraud that's alleged, you'd think that someone at the company would have spoken up long ago.

One key thing I have learned over the years is to maintain casual contact with employees at all levels of a company.  It's great to be able to stop by to ask them how it's going.  This is particularly true for key people in finance and engineering.  Both groups tend to be honest and direct.

Secondly, I always maintain direct contact with the service providers used by a company, particularly lawyers and accountants.  They tend to have a good sense of whether or not things are on the up and up.  In the case of Canopy, one call to the auditors would have determined, allegedly, that they never did an audit!

I'm not picking on the VCs involved as I don't know the whole story.  But, there is no substitute for 'management by walking around', or the investor equivalent.  Be present, and talk to the people on the front lines.

If you're thankful, give back

I was inspired by Denise Palmieri's column on peHUB about giving back to her local community.  She described a vote in her small community about funding the library.  There was overwhelming opposition to funding the tax increase for the library from the people who didn't use the library.  This brings up a key factor in democracy:  Do you want to fund things that your town should have, or only the things you personally use?  I try to make decisions about what I think the government should pay for by thinking about how I think the world should be, not what government services do I use.

Thanksgiving is a time of year when we should not only be thankful for what we have, but also try to make the world the place we all want it to be.  Get past the selfish view of "what's in it for me" and think about "what's in it for us".  Put yourself in the other person's position before you make a decision.  Don't criticize someone if you wouldn't trade your position in life with theirs.  Instead, try to make the world better so that we're all happy with the position we have.

Don't take what we all have for granted.  Give back with your time and your money to build a better world for all of us.  Feed the poor, heal the sick, and enrich our lives with education, music, theater, and the arts.  Spend a little less time on you and a little more time on us.

If we all do this, we'll all have a lot more to be thankful for next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 17, 2009

ART One Day Sale

Readers of this blog know of my support for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.  I am on the Board of Trustees and am a 27-year subscriber.  The new Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, is extremly talented, dynamic, and innovative.  Here's a great chance to check-out the rest of the ART season.

Today only, the ART is having a one-day sale.  You can buy tickets using the promotional code ONEDAY.  This will reveal $25 prices for the opening week performances of our three upcoming productions -- Best of Both Worlds, Gatz, and Paradise Lost.  Stay tuned for a separate one-day sale of our final production, Red Sox Nation.

This promotional code is only good today, November 17th, from 9 AM until midnight.  These tickets make great holiday gifts, or a special treat for you!

Also, while there, be sure to buy tickets for one of the remaining performances of The Donkey Show and Sleep No More.  Both of these only run through January 3, 2010.  They've met with critical acclaim and are unique experiences.  And, they've been selling out.  Don't miss your chance to see these.

If you are from outside the Boston area, consider coming for a weekend to see all three Shakespeare Exploded productions -- The Donkey Show, Sleep No More, and Best of Both Worlds.  For those who want a complete, turnkey weekend, choose December 4-6 with a package that includes hotel and meals.  Make it a theater weekend in Boston!

November 13, 2009

New FeinLine under construction

Although it's a big pain, my hoster (Yahoo) is cutting back its support of Movable Type.  Although they'll keep hosting my blog on Movable Type, it's clear that they prefer I move to WordPress.  So, I am undertaking that task.

Importing that posts and comments was easy.  But, I need to work on the layout and other functionality.  I hope to have a NEW FeinLine up next week.  Until then, time I would spend posting is instead gong to be spent porting and tweaking.

November 11, 2009

First thoughts on the Droid

I've been trying out the new Motorola Droid from Verizon Wireless for the past few days.  Although I love gadgets, I didn't try it just to test out the newest thing.  I had a few reasons to give it a try:

  • I've been living with two cell phones for a while.  Our family has our plan on Verizon Wireless, and we've generally been happy with it.  I've used a simple flip phone that is my main cell phone number and is small and convenient.
  • My second cell phone has been a Windows Mobile Samsung Blackjack II on AT&T.  I've generally been happy with it, although I don't generally use it as a phone.  It was great on my Japan trip, and AT&T has been a good provider.  I need a smartphone of some sort to do email and for mobile web access while traveling.
  • I was intrigued by the iPhone, but couldn't get comfortable with the touch-only keypad.  I couldn't type on it very well.  I needed a keyboard.
  • The Droid had everything I was looking for -- reasonable form factor, large touch screen, decent keyboard, music player, GPS, open operating system with lots of applications, etc.
  • I decided to get rid of my AT&T account, the separate smart phone, my add-on GPS service on AT&T, and the multitude of chargers to consolidate in one device.

So far, I've been happy,  It's not perfect, but with the open operating system and application ecosystem, I expect things to get better and better.  There are already some software updates planned for the Droid, and some applications I've tried have also already issued updates.  The update process if automatic and painless (so far).

Here's what I like about the Droid so far:

  • Very fast
  • Beautiful and bright screen
  • Rich user interface with lots of shortcuts -- I still haven't figured out all of the quickest ways to do things
  • Many useful apps already available
  • Can run lots of apps at once without performance hits
  • Full featured web browser
  • The GPS navigation application is outstanding.  It uses Google Maps, including satellite view and Street View, with traffic information.
  • All the functionality I've tried has worked without any real issues

Here's what's only OK:

  • The keyboard has good tactile feedback, but the smooth surface could have the keys a bit more differentiated.  But, like any other keyboard on these kinds of things, I've adapted fast.  I can certainly live with it.
  • Outlook/Exchange synchronization works fine, but lacks some key features for me -- moving emails to folders, responding to appointment requests, sync'ing tasks and notes.  I'm testing out a replacement program that solves some of these problems.
  • Some programs have temporarily frozen, although they restart automatically and no data has been lost.
  • Battery life could be better, although I've been using it intensively to test things out, download applications, etc.  I think that it will be OK in more normal use as it was when I was traveling over the weekend.  Face it, battery life on these things can always be better.
  • The three screen desktop doesn't give you enough room for all the shortcuts and widgets you'd like.  I tested out one replacement that expands this, but it wasn't reliable enough (although they promise to have an update soon that fixes this).

Overall, I think that this device is a winner.  All the software shortcomings should get addressed through various updates.  It's a very impressive first Android device for Motorola, first Android 2.0 device in the market, and first open device for Verizon Wireless.  After suffering through the lack of Bluetooth transfer functionality in my old Verizon cell phone, it's impressive to see this with Wifi, easy file transfer to PC, Bluetooth, application market, etc.

For those who are curious, here is a list of some of the apps I've been using so far:

GPS navigation with special car dock, multimedia dock/alarm clock, ASTRO file manager, browser, calculator, camera (two different apps, including one add-on), Facebook, Photo Gallery, Google Voice, LinkedIn, Listen (podcast player), Messaging (Texting), Music Player, NewsRob (offline Google RSS Reader), OpenTable, Pandora, Ringdroid (makes ringtones from song snippets you edit on the phone), ScanLife (barcode reader -- much more useful than I expected), SportsTap (sports portal), Sudoku, TouchDown (testing this Email/Calendar/Contacts replacement for better Exchange/Outlook synchronization), Twidroid (Twitter app), Weather, Where, Where Did We Park? (remembers where your car is parked and uses GPS to get you back there!), and YouTube.

Holiday Party at The Donkey Show

If you've been to The Donkey Show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, then you know that it's a blast.  The combination of Shakespeare and disco is an unlikely way to have a great time. 

Whether you've already gone or not, you may want to have a very unique holiday party this year at The Donkey Show.  Special accomodations can be made for groups of 20 or more for this unique way to celebrate the season.  Check out more information here.

November 04, 2009

An example of leading by example

Some people are natural leaders.  It might even be true that the best leaders are natural leaders.  I always have respect for people who take on tough problems and can motivate others to join them.  Here's an example:

One of my favorite television shows was The Wire.  It was a very compelling story of what goes on behind the scenes in Baltimore, a city with plenty of troubles.  There were plenty of people in leadership positions in the show, but few real leaders.  In fact, almost all the characters were a realistic mix of good and bad.  Well worth watching the series from start to finish on DVD if you haven't already.

Much more interesting is a real-life story that is similar -- Brick City, the story of urban renewal in Newark, NJ.  This story has a real leader, mayor Cory Booker of Newark.  Maybe you saw him on the Colbert Report in 2008 and 2009 (2009 interview embedded below, along with a Brick City promo video).

In watching Brick City, I found Cory Booker to be inspiring.  He leads by example and builds a strong team which he needs to solve the city's very tough problems.  My favorite scenes are of his police director being very tough on the cops when they aren't doing strong investigations or reporting their crime statistics accurately.  These have direct parallels to The Wire.

The very best leaders have 'it' -- that special quality that makes you want to follow them.  They are intelligent, articulate, and totally committed visionaries.  They can connect with people at all levels but never lose sight of their overall goal.  They sacrifice to get the job done and inspire others to sacrifice as well.

I've met a quite a few people in my life who have this quality in various degress, but none more than President Jimmy Carter.  His post-presidency work at The Carter Center is an amazing example of dedication to helping make the world a better place.  In the very brief time I've spent with him, I came away inspired to commit more time to volunteering for causes I believe in.  He lives this every day, even into his mid-80s.  If he has time to do this, I'm sure I do, too.

I think you can teach people leadership skills, but those can only complement the innate qualities that make someone a strong leader.  Just watching Brick City makes me realize how much we can each do in order to be better leaders and make a difference.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cory Booker
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

November 03, 2009

Re-matching expectations

Every time there are new venture capital performance statistics announced, lots of people, including me, decry how over-funded the segment is and claim that it has to shrink.  And, over time, it will shrink.  But, what does this environment mean to entrepreneurs?

The fundamental problem with the venture capital business is that the VC investor's expectations are no longer aligned with that of an entrepreneur.  According to the latest statistics on exits from venture-capital backed companies, the average merger exit this year is $92M (and that's only for the ~25% of the deals where the transaction size is announced).  I'm willing to bet that the unnanounced transactions average a much lower price, although there are always some significant deals where the value isn't announced for various reasons.  Let's be optimistic and assume that the average for ALL venture M&A exits this year is something like $70M.

Now, if you and your co-founders could start a company from scratch and make it worth $70M, you'd think of yourself as being pretty successful.  But, to a VC, that's a marginal return.  Assuming that the VCs own 75% of the company by the time of the exit, they would take $52.5M of your $70M exit.  If the total investment in your company was $25M, the VC's profit would be $27.5M.  20% of this goes toward the VC's carried interest (assuming that their overall fund was in the black), leaving $22M for the LPs (the VC's investors).  That's a 1.88x multiple for the LPs.  Not what the VCs are shooting for, but not a disaster.

If you look at the historical returns I linked to above, you'll see that, on average, the VC industry has delivered a less than 1x return to LPs year after year from 1999 on.  They've lost money for a decade, so the average deal is worse than what I described above.  It's worse because there has probably been more money poured into the deal.  Maybe the real average exit is less than $70M.  And, my analysis above doesn't include the VC's 2%/year fee which also drags down returns.

What most VCs do to combat this is either 1) raise a lot less money and invest only in very capital efficient deals or 2) take really big risks that have a chance to deliver gigantic returns.  One huge return can overcome the losses of many deals.  But, if you aren't lucky enough to be part of one of those big wins, your returns (as a VC and an entrepreneur) suffer.

As an entrepreneur, your interests are more directly aligned with the VC that raises less money and is careful about the capital that they invest.  When your revenue-stage company gets to the point where it needs some additional capital to get over the 'cash flow break even finish line', you won't want to take that in as equity capital.  That's what pushes you into the overfunded category and lowers your return.  Instead, you may want to consider some venture debt that is tailored to meet the needs of companies at this stage.

The benefit of this type of debt is that it doesn't really change your share (or the VC's share) of the upside proceeds when your company achieves its exit.  The venture debt typically includes some warrants (or options to purchase shares in the company upon exit), but not a large stake.  If your company grows as planned, you should make more after repaying this venture debt then if you sub-optimized your growth without the debt.  The downside is that you have to service this debt which adds to the short-term cash burn.  As long as your company is growing faster than the added burden of the debt service, you should be able to repay the debt and capture the upside.

Of course, if you've never raised venture capital money, this type of debt instrument is just as applicable.  You may not want or have the option of taking additional equity investment to finance your last stage of growth.  Venture debt gives you the capital you need while allowing you to maintain control of your company.

In another case of mismatched expectations, most venture debt firms don't want to invest in revenue stage companies.  They prefer to invest as early as possible when the top-tier VCs invest.  Essentially, they are loaning money to the VCs, not to the company.  That can make sense if you have a new company with top-tier venture backing.  But, for the other 99% of the private companies out there, venture debt isn't really available.

There's clearly a nice opportunity here for both the private companies and the right venture debt investor.  More to come soon.

November 02, 2009

If - You can lead by example

So many leaders can tell you the right thing to do, but the best leaders lead by example.  And, that example trickles down throughout an organization.  When employees see the boss 'doing the right thing' when it comes to tough choices, they'll do the same.  Conversely, when they see the boss cutting corners and treating people poorly, it sets off a lot of dysfunction.

When I was in fifth grade, we had to memorize a poem.  It's probably the only poem I every memorized.  Amazingly, I still remember much of it today.  The poem was If by Rudyard Kipling.  It starts like this:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

I re-read the poem today, and, other than the sexist ending (you'll be a Man my son!), it has a lot of application to today's entrepreneurs.  Maybe that's why it stuck with me.

I thought of this today when I heard this interview with Tom Brady, QB of the New England Patriots.  This is Brady's weekly interview on WEEI in Boston.  But, since the Patriots didn't play yesterday, they asked Tom about his off-field life and, particularly, how he deals with all the harrassment he gets from fans and papparazzi.

I came away from the interview very impressed with Tom Brady's level-headed approach to dealing with having such a public life.  And, I'm sure that his leadership style has influenced many other Patriot players.  He's the kind of guy you'd build a team around, on and off the field.  He fits the mold that Rudyard Kipling had in mind.

By the way, here's a line from the poem particularly suited to entrepreneurs:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;

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