Hi. I’ve been slow to write here recently but three other places you can find some quick hits:
“Grow the pie, don’t just take our piece of it.” That was a founding mantra for Homebrew when Satya and I started the firm in 2013. Starting with a blank sheet of paper allowed us to lead with our values and incorporate them into our operating principles. Founding Homebrew wasn’t about our ability to raise a fund but rather whether we thought we could have a positive impact on the early stage landscape in addition to being successful investors.
But we also wanted to stay focused – no large platform or operations teams, no large-scale events, no 10x growth in funds raised before we proved whether or not we could return 10x. That forced us to think about how could we possibly contribute by running our own playbook, not a junior version of what many billion dollar funds attempt. We came up with three guiding principles for how’d we grow the pie:
- Make It Scale – Try as best we could to create resources that could scale 1:many, especially outside of the Bay Area.
- Put It In Front of the “Paywall”– Don’t make it about what we can do for startups post-investment — there’s plenty of work we do there, most which doesn’t scale infinitely — but try as best we could to give it away for free.
- Catalyze It, Don’t Own It – Put work out there but don’t seek to own it. Leverage the community to help us improve it over time.
People & Talent is one area where we’ve made strides to live up to our goals to contribute broadly, primarily because we brought on Beth Scheer last summer. As our Head of Talent, Beth works with the Homebrew portfolio on a mixture of tactical and strategic people work. From playing air-traffic controller over a small number of high priority searches, to helping companies hire their first in-house recruiter, to generally helping founders build their hiring culture. We punched above our weight in getting Beth on-board – she’d spent six years at Google and six at Salesforce (most recently leading executive recruiting) – and it’s paid off for our founders and our firm trajectory.
Earlier this year Beth released our first “living resource,” a guide to Diversity at Early Stage Startups, which she authored with assistance from industry experts and now updates quarterly with new tools, thinking and best practices.
Last week, Beth published our second document, this one focused on Compensation at Startups. Again, we intend to keep this resource up to date based on our evolving advice and resources we can incorporate. It makes me really proud to see people I respect from around the tech community referencing its value.
Satya and I believe we still have a lot of work to do to make sure Homebrew reaches its full potential but I’m glad that we’ve been able to try to “grow the pie” during our earliest years. And thank you to Beth for the great work executing Homebrew’s values!
Update: if you want priority on the beta test list register at https://www.accompany.com/ with my code HWCHIEF
It’s been a blast to see my Google peers go off into their next adventures over the years. Amy Chang, who ran Google Analytics, departed a few years ago and has been quietly working on Accompany, a product she calls your “virtual chief of staff,” blending calendar, CRM, news and more into a single mobile app. Amy is starting to talk more broadly about her company and open up the beta, so I asked her to do a Five Questions with me.
Hunter Walk: Accompany is very polished for a Beta product. You decided to take an extended development period rather than releasing an early rough version and iterate in public. What were some of the tradeoffs in this decision? Was it influenced at all by your product tenure at Google?
Amy Chang: We’re building a virtual chief of staff. Those are some high expectations from users, and we wanted people to be able to have those magic moments from the get-go. Leslie Blodgett, creator and former CEO of BareMinerals, told us recently that she was looking for a reason to reach out to someone new without being “that person.” Accompany sent her a news article one day about a foundation he was working on and she was able to reach out and say, “I love what you’re doing, and by the way we should get together about this other thing.” Accompany was able to create an opportunity for her to reach out. And we’ve got so many of those stories. We love hearing about those serendipitous moments.
I think you can’t help but be influenced by a place if you’re there for over seven years. Google’s a fantastic place. There’s one thing that Eric Schmidt used to say when I first joined that’s stuck with me ever since: start with the power users, the people who are going to be the most demanding. Once you can serve them, you can serve almost anyone. That’s what we did. By putting people like Godfrey Sullivan (Chairman of Splunk), Leslie Blodgett (founder, former CEO of BareMinerals), Hilarie Koplow-McAdams (President and CRO of New Relic), April Underwood (VP Product of Slack) and Mark Garrett (CFO of Adobe) on the platform from the very early days, we made sure we got our asses kicked regularly. They’ve given us so many ideas and helped shape the product in a thousand different ways.
HW: You also had the opportunity to raise quite a bit of capital based on the credibility of the team and expansiveness of the vision. How did you make sure that having too much money too early didn’t create lack of urgency in your company culture?
AC: You’ve known me for a long time. I think you’d probably say that everything about my very being is urgent! I think I was born impatient and have always been one of those people that even when standing is shifting from one foot to the other, aching to move. This sense of urgency about the market window is shared by the team. Some people are more easygoing than others, but we all know that there’s a window and we need to get out there during that window. This team also understands that every user matters, so once you take users on, you better serve them as well as you can, as fast as you can. So, the funding hasn’t touched that sense of urgency. It did give us the runway and the means to build a product that requires an underlying data platform and an intelligence layer that sits atop that platform. That takes time and it takes money – two things funding helped enable.
HW: How do you run your Board Meetings? You’ve got impressive experience serving on public company boards such as Informatica and Splunk. How did that inform the composition and goals of Accompany’s Board?
AC: We spend about 10-15 minutes covering all of the housekeeping stuff. Then the bulk of our time is spent on things we’re in the midst of vigorously debating within the company and figuring out what we want to do about those issues. We usually prep long-form reading materials for these discussions as opposed to slides. That way, the board can see where we’re coming from in more detail. This levels the discussion so we’re all aware of the assumptions that went into the preliminary point of view. We’ll also show early mocks and visuals of new concepts, which helps spur more definitively positive or negative reactions to an idea. We want the reactions, whether sharply positive or negative.
Being on boards, and being with teams for the whole day, the one thing I’ve definitely figured out is that nobody wants to be presented at for the entire session. Board members are there because they actually want to be of use (hopefully). They want to engage in real discussion and hear about what’s really going on – not a sanitized version of events. That’s scary and hard for a CEO because you can’t control the conversation, but I’ve found it yields much better results for everyone involved when you can really lay it out there on these specific topics.
HW: Tell me a little bit about how you hire at Accompany?
AC: First of all, we’re 50% women. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened to work out that way. We’re really proud of that and proud that we have a lot of diverse points of view in one place We also seem to attract people who have founded and sold their own companies, which is great because they come in seasoned, and with a lot of learning they can apply to our stuff. Our engineers hail from Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Dropbox, and a bunch of different startups, which means, when we face a problem, we’ve got people who’ve done it at scale previously, as well as people who’ve had to do it with minimal steady-state cost and with a whole lot of scrappiness.
Small plug – we have high standards, but we also know that to get the best talent, you sometimes have to move very quickly and decisively, which we’re not afraid to do.
HW: There’s a ton of young product managers who want to follow the path you’ve taken – run a large product at a great tech company, serve on Boards, found their own company. What advice would you share with them?
AC: I’ve made so many mistakes along the way. That’s always the first thing I want people who come to ask for advice to understand. And I have those 3am wake up and can’t go back to sleep for worrying moments all the time. It’s good for people who are just starting their careers to know that too, so that when they’re totally scared out of their minds of failure, or whatever else, they know it’s 100% normal.
There’s something my good friend David Hornik said to me once that always stuck in my brain. If you’re thinking about something right before you fall asleep and right after you wake up, then you need to pay attention to that. It’s your gut instinct telling you something, and even if you’re not quite ready to go there yet, you should at least pay attention to it and spend some time thinking about it. That’s how I felt about wrestling with leaving Google for months before I actually left. It’s a hard place to leave and I felt really conflicted about it for a long time. When David finally said that to me, things fell into place in my head.
The other piece of advice concerns anyone who’s in the midst of big life a decision, like where to work next. Usually they have multiple offers, they’ve done the background research, and they’ve agonized over each of the choices. So I tell them to go somewhere that makes them feel as if the world is open and rife with possibility for a day and be alone with no devices to distract them. For me, that’s Stanford campus, but it’s somewhere different for everyone. Just go and sit for a day with your own thoughts. Leave your computer, your lists of possible outcomes, your pros and your cons, and open yourself up to that gut instinct.
I think oftentimes, we get into this state where we overthink, analyze to death and start ignoring our gut. That’s something I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older — as long as you’re going somewhere, you can course correct later on. There’s very little that can’t be fixed, and knowing what you don’t want is almost as important early on as knowing (and appreciating) what you do want.
I woke on Election Day 2012 with control of Barack Obama’s Twitter account. And Rihanna’s. And Ashley Judd, Eva Longoria, Donna Brazile plus several hundred other celebrities and Democratic Party influencers (not to mention hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens). Along with some friends, I’d built an app called Picswitch that made it easy to overlay graphics atop your Twitter and Facebook profile pics. The Obama campaign adopted it as their official campaign tool, and from there it was off to the races during the Fall election season. The way Twitter’s API permissions worked at the time, in order to sign into the Picswitch tool and allow it to change your avatar, you also had to grant the app the ability to tweet on your behalf. We obviously kept all of this software quite secure. But, still, wow.
Screenshots of Obama, Eva Longoria and Ashley Judd promoting the Twitter tool we build for the 2012 Elections
It wasn’t my first experience using simple tech tools to help people spread a message across social media. Earlier in 2012, we deployed a simpler version of Picswitch in the battle against SOPA/PIPA legislation. Nearly 90,000 people used that tool to reach tens of millions of their followers.
While I was proud to have a hand in these two efforts, they were both a step removed from what actually matters in elections: voting. So, for this 2016 election I decided to get out of people’s social media and into their startups.
This time I wanted to seek out CEOs and founders of tech companies who would be encouraging their teams to vote and proactively give them time off if necessary.
The TakeOffElectionDay campaign started about a week ago with some tweets (sidenote: this awesome website was made by two brothers who saw the beginning of the effort and ran with it). Since then, more than 100 companies have signed-up, including Spotify, TaskRabbit, Survey Monkey, Wikimedia and The Skimm.
While I might be partisan (#ImWithHer), this voter effort is not. For too long the tech community has been accused of apathy around social issues. I know this to not be the case from my daily interactions with passionate entrepreneurs. At the same time, young voters need their responsibilities as citizens and turn out to vote — in national, state and local elections.
Just as our industry suggests tech literacy should be part of every American’s skillset, so too should civic literacy be part of ours.
In setting up TakeOffElectionDay, I was surprised to learn that some states have no legal requirement for employers to allow time for voting. Others are a messy patchwork of paid/unpaid and various conditions. Even in states like California, which allows for two hours of paid leave at the beginning or end of a shift, we shouldn’t rely upon individuals to exercise their right in the face of passive or obstinate CEOs.
Let’s flip the script and have the CEOs inform their teams of their right to go vote — and encourage participation. That’s what we’re looking to do with this effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a swing state or not. Register and vote in 2016. Your voice matters.
If you’re a CEO or executive who wants to make sure their company is listed, please reach out to me (email@example.com). If you’re an employee at a company, go ask your HR department what their plans are for Election Day. The TakeOffElectionDay website even has the ability to anonymously email an executive in your company to pose this question if you don’t feel comfortable sending the query directly.
Thanks and see you in November! (And if you want to support Hillary, I encourage you to please donate — every dollar counts this year to ensure there’s strong voter turnout.)
Oh I was so intimidated to meet Virginia Heffernan for the first time. She was a cultural critic at the New York Times and writing about YouTube in a way that no one else was. About its communities, content niches, the aesthetic of the first wave of user content. In a manner which was academically-informed but not stuffy. Critiquing but not judging. I imagined she lived in Brooklyn, lived some cool life and really, really wanted her to like me, even though I was sure she’d think I was just a big nerd.
So, it turned out that she did live in Brooklyn. Lived a cool life but was also a big nerd. And not just tolerated my fanboy love of YouTube but we grooved about technology, avatars, adolescence and all things Internet. A great friendship was born and I’m thrilled almost a decade later to ask her Five Questions. Virginia recently wrote Magic and Loss, an amazing and well-received book about the Internet as art.
Hunter Walk: The Internet moves at fruit fly generational cycles – always evolving. When you sat down to write Magic and Loss, how did reconcile what you wanted to say with the traditional cycles of book publishing timelines?
Virginia Heffernan: Part of the reason for the development of critical theory—literary theory, art theory—in the 20th century is that critics recognized that without it all they were doing was generating just one more reading of a specific work. I wanted, with Magic and Loss, to leave off individual reviews and prognostications about the market, or one digital service or another—except to prove a larger point. The book’s case about design—that elegant app design is a reproof to the junky non-design of the open Web, which is built to pick your pocket and read YOU even when you think you’re reading IT—that argument, if true, should hold up even with Yahoo’s demise, the ascendancy of Pokemon Go and new styles in Bitmoji. I aimed to identify the tectonics of digital culture, its logic, rather than keep pace with the play of surfaces. However lovely those surfaces can be.
HW: I have a theory that each generation of teenagers needs a new online space to call their own. That is, each group of 13-17 year olds will birth a successful social platform, even if they’re also participating in legacy products. Is this consistent at all with your POV?
VH: Absolutely. The mandate for adolescence is to do something that mystifies your parents, and ideally entirely illegible to them. I knew my kids were up to something good with Minecraft when I saw the interface and it looked like visual noise to me—the way skiffle music, rock, disco, punk, hip-hop sounded like noise to my grandparents and parents.
HW: As a kid, you had the geographic serendipity to grow up in Hanover, New Hampshire, one of the first towns wired to the Internet. Would you have found a path to tech-oriented journalism and culture regardless or is there an alternate reality where Virginia Heffernan had a totally different future?
VH: I’m not sure. I wonder this all the time. Before I joined Conference XYZ on Dartmouth’s time-sharing system, I was already drawn to electronic games like Merlin and Simon, and something called TEAMMATE, a proto-computer I got at Sears. I loved non-linear “electronics,” and my grandfather, Lyle W. Coffey, had introduced cable television in Appalachia before it was even in New York, on the grounds that country people needed entertainment and escape more than people in cities, who had parties and Broadway and all manner of diversions. So I knew tech was good for people in rural areas, like me.
I also loved telephones, and even the kind of pranks that—had I been more skilled—might have turned in phone phreaking, a hacker gateway drug beloved of Jobs and the Woz. CB and ham radio also seemed very exciting, though I was too young for them. And I loved penpals and mail-order stuff from the back of comic books. I think I liked networks, fantasy games like D&D, surprising connections across time and space, non-linear systems, and digital culture before it was called that. So even without Conference XYZ I might have found another way through the looking glass.
HW: We first met when you were a columnist at the New York Times and, from my perspective, understood YouTube’s community better than anyone outside of our team. Do you recall what attracted you to study YouTube and what hooked you?
VH: That meeting with you was really exciting—because I remember just nodding as everything clicked. I’m not sure what kicked it off, but I’d been writing about TV for so long—and wondering why ratings and quality seemed to be falling off so steeply, on shows that cost a fortune to make. Then I saw the video “guitar,” in which Funtwo plays “Canon Rock” in a video that broke all the rules of television. And I realized I had been longing to see behind the canned illusions of TV—the multiple cameras, the mandatory body shapes and ethnicities, the lighting, the three acts. I wanted to see something like a kid in Seoul playing guitar in his room that I wasn’t quite supposed to see.
Think of “lonelygirl15″—what a wonderful fakeout. It looked like other girls keeping kind of teasing video diaries. You expected something unwholesome, but with “lonelygirl15” you got a serialized, scripted adventure that played on the audience’s curiosity about YouTube generally. WHAT WAS ALL THIS VIDEO? I still don’t know! And that’s what keeps me coming back. The sheer size and eccentricity of that video clearinghouse. It’s mind-boggling.
HW: As a parent, how have you introduced your children to the Internet? For them it’s always been a given that all the world’s information is available at all times. What does this mean for kids in general vs our generations?
VH: I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t! We all love to muse about how things have changed but the small stuff—dinner hour looking different than it did in the 70s and 80s, more kids having expensive phones earlier—is not where the change really lies. The move to much greater abstraction and densely symbolic experience (when it happens with capitalism, say, which supplanted feudalism, or the move from gold to paper and then electronic money) is so tremendous with the Internet that I don’t even know how to measure or conceive of the psychic changes we’re undergoing.
My kids’ experience of the Internet is relentlessly creative and progressive and, at best, illegible to me. I spoke about Minecraft’s illegibilty. The same is true for AR and Pokemon GO. They picked it up fast and quickly started speaking a language with their friends that I couldn’t understand. But in other ways, I recognize their path through the culture. My son found Weird Al Yankovic and Monty Python on YouTube at (almost) 11. He worked around the superheroes and cartoons dominating movie theaters; it wasn’t his thing. That was a canny way through the culture on his own terms, and he was only able to pilot it using the Internet.
My daughter loves to make avatars of all kinds. She doesn’t play Wii games so much as make new avatars and give them new names. Because avatar creation is so important to me—creating some that are fantasy and at least one that is both authoritative and authentic—I do talk with her about her choices. There’s a big element of roleplay to them—she likes appearing as a boy, as a black woman, as a gigantic adult. But then why did my son make his headshot for Google a kind of corporate power-pose—with his arms behind his head, as if leaning back at a giant desk? We discussed this—and I got it. It’s the equivalent of decking yourself out in armor in Second Life. What better move for a preteen who feels vulnerable and is trying to give himself courage and confidence? But they are clearly inventing new forms.
I’ve been surprised to see how much my son and his friends write together in Google Docs, for instance. They make brackets or write stories and comment on them, and sometimes just chat in the docs! That reminds me a lot of ConferenceXYZ — how everything has a chat element. On an app called QuizUp my son discovered someone in Lithuania with his exact three areas of expertise—Tintin, How I Met Your Mother, and WWI—and it was like MAGIC to find this person. How in the world? When I see the kids getting to that state of awe, I know they’re in the pocket. I love to see it.
You can order Virginia’s book Magic & Loss: The Internet as Art RIGHT NOW.
I love Twitter. 45,000 Tweets. 263,000 Likes (even though they’ll always be Favs to me). Their commitment to free speech has always been clear (thank you amac!). But they’re, by many accounts, losing users to continued abuse and trolling. And Twitter has said they want to fix this, but never published a roadmap as to how they intend to do so.
Today I was drawn to SNL comedian Leslie Jones’ timeline. Currently starring in Ghostbusters, she seems like exactly the type of celebrity account Twitter wants. Funny, engaging, speaking openly – not just through social media managers. On the Monday after her movie opened to a $40m+ debut she should be interacting with fans. Instead she spent the day dealing with a deluge of racist tweets in her mentions.
There’s a relatively simple change that perhaps Twitter can make and it involves the difference between what you can say in your house versus what’s ok to come into my house and say.
If some low-class individual wants to tweet in their account that Leslie Jones is all sort of awful things, including comments that might be racist, let them do it so long as they’re not tagging her (and of course violating other Community Standards around direct threats, etc). If this person’s followers find that entertaining, then whatever, that’s a group of people I can ignore or block.
But when this person comes into Leslie’s house by replying to her tweets or tagging her, boom, if she reports it for harassment, take it seriously. If it’s racist, violent, profane it deserves attention. It’s not ok to come into Leslie’s house and say these things to her, even if they are protected by free speech. Free speech doesn’t give you the right to come on my lawn and start shouting despicable things at me.
I know this isn’t a perfect solution but to me at least, there’s a big difference between the people who want to say horrible shit into the wind versus those who seek out specific people to target and offend. The latter don’t belong on Twitter’s service.