The Great Talent Reshuffling of 2021 Has Begun

Why the next 6–12 months will be the best time in a decade for startups to hire

Our YOLO Economy New York Times’ Kevin Roose labeled the new attitude sweeping workers in certain privileged parts of the economy.

But for many of those who can afford it, adventure is in the air.

One executive at a major tech company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media, said she and her husband had both been discussing quitting their jobs in recent weeks. The pandemic, she said, had taught them that they’d been playing it too safe with their life choices, and missing out on valuable family time.

I’ve seen this in my own circles as well. Whether it’s moving to a new geography for a fresh start (for some, maybe just an Adventure Year) or leaving a safe but stagnant career, the “I’m starting a new company/open to a new gig” inbounds are up since Jan 1.

But it’s not just a new appreciation for the preciousness of one’s time and focus after a year of social distancing. We’re also seeing people vote with their feet towards companies which share their values and away from companies that, in their mind, violated a social contract. The company’s business matters too — the agriculture, health care, financial empowerment startups in Homebrew’s portfolio are all telling me about an increase in candidates who mention the mission as a reason they’re attracted.

And oh my goodness, we’re going to see a lot of transitions as companies head back from health-required distancing and settle into a longterm decision about work. Back in the officehyrbidfully remote. There’s surely going to be 5%?, 10%?, 20%? of teams for which a CEO’s decision won’t match with what they want from a job.

Receptionists, for example, need to be in the office five days a week, Burke said. But she envisions most other jobs being “flex jobs” where employees can choose to work remotely at least 50% of the time. There will then be jobs that can continue to be fully remote, but DocuSign will leave those decisions up to senior managers.

“The truth of the matter is, this is just a big experiment that we’re all in and none of us really have an answer,” Burke said. “We just have to stay open and fluid and listen to our employees.”

Employees are going to vote with their feet and I feel for People Ops teams who are going to be having a tremendous number of emotional conversations.

With understaffed HR teams increasingly working with algorithms instead of coworkers, it’s easy to forget that employees are people — people with families, hobbies, and rich inner lives that often go unnoticed and unacknowledged at work. Empathy is not a math problem. And even if most of us aren’t crying behind the webcam, it’s never been more important to know how employees are feeling.

Overall though it’s fantastic and will give high performing companies of all stages a chance to really bring talent together a way that before maintain a greater number of frictions. Here are some things I’m seeing the best startups do to prepare for the opportunity:

  1. Build a Stretch Headcount Budget -> Sometimes you gotta bust the headcount plan when there’s a chance to make key hires. It most commonly takes the form of a budgeted head that you want to add earlier than planned, or adding an incremental hire to an existing team (ie one more engineer than otherwise planned). I’ve seen many first time founders overthink (or overestimate) the financial impact. Hiring a ‘bird in hand’ just a quarter or two earlier is typically a rounding error when it comes to incremental salary for a high performing venture backed company. Especially versus the ‘cost’ of running a full search process later on and risk of schedule delays. Plus, given the current retention environment (what this entire post is about!) it’s worth adding someone great, especially if they’re a known quantity to you or a current team member. So I’d advise talking with your team leads and your investors now about willingness to go a bit ahead of FTE count this year and running the models to show implications. Typically it’ll pull in your “cash out” date by 15–30 days, which again, for a high growth early stage startup, is a bet you should often take.
  2. Double Down on Passive Candidate Outreach -> Flood the zone! Seriously, ping the folks who might have turned you down previously just because of timing. Have your team reach out to the best former colleague or friend in their network and make the pitch. Sort your through company social media followers and newsletter subscribers and reach out to anyone interesting. There’s never been a better time to try.
  3. Company Culture “Data Rooms” -> Collections of internal communications and documents which allow candidates to see if the walk matches the talk. Sometimes it’s company all hands videos or slightly sanitized Board decks. Private company podcasts are increasingly something shared with candidates and new hires, telling the story about the company and the people involved. Especially effective to help with questions around authenticity and solving for distance in a remote hire situation. Note, these are usually opened to senior candidates and/or shared at the point an offer is made.
  4. Don’t Forget the Partner/Spouse/Families -> I can’t believe I’m giving away all my hiring secrets here instead of holding them back for Homebrew founders! Ok, you get the 50,000 ft summary instead of specific tactics then (c’mon, venture is competitive, I gotta hold back a thing or two): Don’t forget the other influencer’s in a candidate’s life. Namely, their family/partner/spouse. Especially given the intensity of this past year, there are often dynamics that you might not have full visibility into. I’ve seen longshot hires successfully made because the spouse was actively and appropriately ‘sold’ by the startup. And ‘90%+ likelihood of closing” candidates lost because the founders didn’t have full visibility into the evolving personal situation and preferences at play.

Show me the first 20 hires of a startup and I can usually tell you whether they’ll succeed or not. Since we invest well before this milestone is reached (often it’s just the founders), helping the startup build their teams is one of the most important things we can do at Homebrew. It’s why we brought on a Head of Talent during our first years who works directly with founders on their hiring strategy, not just sourcing and process (although that too).

There’s never been more talent thinking about what they might do next. Go hire them!

Employee Surveys Won’t Tell You Whether To Return To An Office Or Not

Engage your team and understand their needs but craft your “Return To Office” strategy from the top down

We’ve backed a wide variety of startups at Homebrew but the CEOs are now all coalescing around one theme: it’s time to start making choices about what ‘back to the office’ looks like (note 95%+ of our investments are based in the US). Some are high conviction that all being back in an office five days a week is the right thing for their company (alongside modern policies around when flexible scheduling and WFH makes sense). Others embraced a distributed team from early on, or pivoted to one during the past year, and shake their head at the idea that a single HQ ever makes sense for a tech company like theirs. And of course, there are those crafting hybrid strategies, utilizing the skills their organizations have developed over 2020 to balance Work From Office and Work From Elsewhere. While I’ve personally advocated for in-office/balanced solutions, there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain about: you shouldn’t make the decision based on an employee survey alone.

Now this isn’t to say that you should develop your “return to office (or not)” plan in a vacuum and spring it on your teams fully formed with no chance to comment. But ultimately it’s going to be the decision of the executive team, and specifically the CEO, who must make the call.

And the Chief People Officers are going to deserve bonuses figuring this stuff out. DocuSign’s CPO Joan Burke concedes, “The truth of the matter is, this is just a big experiment that we’re all in and none of us really have an answer. We just have to stay open and fluid and listen to our employees.”

There’s going to be a TON of news coverage, hot takes, strong opinions, and purity tests on this stuff over the coming months. Assume as CEO that it will be impossible to retain 100% of your employees no matter what you decide. There’s going to be a talent reshuffling for the next 6–24 months IMO as employees decide whether their current employer’s workplace strategy is right for them or not.

And resist the urge to reduce this to assumptions like “equitable workplaces are those with the fewest mandates.” These choices are complex, often with unintended consequences. Flexible schedules more friendly for women? Unclear according to this WSJ article:

Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said hybrid models appear to offer the benefits of both worlds. But they could inadvertently disadvantage women, who shoulder the bulk of caregiving duties and may be more likely to seek more home-based arrangements and miss out on professional face-time, she said. Any solution to one problem will raise other challenges, she said.

The President of Barnard College fears similar and notes it’s about systems of choices, not just a single decision:

So what should well-intentioned companies and managers do? If you think flexible work will boost equity, especially for parents, it is critical to consider what other policies and practices must be in place to advance this goal. Providing paid family and parental leave — as opposed to just maternity leave — and encouraging employees to take it is one example. Ensuring managers do not favor in-person employees for mentorships, in evaluations or for other opportunities is another.

So start thinking about what’s right for your stage of company, the type of product you build, the culture you’ve created, and then prepare for a lot of communication over the second half of the year.

Digital Plastic Surgery: Why Boys and Girls Use Filters Differently

Can You Build a Photo Community Which Doesn’t Prioritize Pretty?

“Young girls, however, see AR filters primarily as a tool for beautification: “[The girls] were all saying things like, ‘I put this filter on because I have flawless skin. It takes away my scars and spots.’ And these were children of 10 and 11.”

https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/04/02/1021635/beauty-filters-young-girls-augmented-reality-social-media/

There’s a lot of prior art here, including some I’ve seen personally. Summer 1999 was down in Los Angeles interning with Mattel while in grad school. A few of us were working in their corporate strategy group, specifically doing projects with the interactive group. There were a line of tech toys being launched with Intel — thedigital microscope was especially cool.

One product we focus grouped pre-launch was the Me2Cam which hooked up to your TV and inserted you into games and other activities. This was pretty groundbreaking at the time, remember we’re talking 21 years ago!

One of the activities was a virtual makeup kit, where you could doodle on your face, and so on. The boys who tested it gave themselves horns, tattoos, scars. The girls talked about how this would let them fix the parts of them that were ugly. These were pre-teen girls!

The solutions here are both product and experiential. Products which elevate and suggest lots of funny modifications besides glamour and traditional gender enhancements. Algorithms which provide a broad set of content experiences and don’t automatically make pretty = popular. It might be genetics but nurture doesn’t always needs to double down on nature’s defaults.

Succeeding in Venture Capital as an Introvert

How a year of virtual living made me appreciate people more

When I tell people I’m an introvert, reactions split into two camps. For those who know me well, it’s pretty much, “Yeah, duh.” But for those who have only been exposed to me in public settings, or online, there’s usually more surprise that a venture capitalist like me could be an introvert. People sometimes mistake introversion for shyness or lack of confidence. But it’s really about whether being with people gives you energy or takes energy away. I love people, I just need adequate amounts of time to recharge, usually spent by myself.

If you’re reading this I’ll assume you’re human, which means the past 12 months were probably pretty tumultuous for you. My family has been incredibly fortunate and hopefully, the long-term consequences are going to be minimal. Lately, I’ve found myself mostly trying to figure out what lessons my daughter should learn from this time, and what lessons we specifically don’t want her to carry throughout her life.

This has given me a chance to redefine my own habits as an introvert — especially those related to how, where, and when I spend time with people.

When it comes to my job, after practicing venture capital for seven years under normal circumstances, it was instructive to get thrown into this new scenario, because I don’t think we’ll ever fully “return to normal.” Instead, we’ll blend aspects of pre-2020 and our experiences from the past year into a “new normal.” This has given me a chance to redefine my own habits as an introvert — especially those related to how, where, and when I spend time with people. It’s a work-in-process but here’s what I’m thinking:

Group events

In the past, these would always trip me up. I would experience some social anxiety mixed with generally feeling overwhelmed by my own internal scorecarding and thoughts of, “Am I networking enough?” Now on Zoom, I can just fall back to audio-only, or drop off the gathering when I’m ready to leave. (What’s the “turn off video” equivalent for me when being at a large event? Probably peeling away with a person or two for the ol’ walk and talk.) Going forward, I think virtual events will continue to evolve beyond the Zoom room and into formats like Icebreaker. I can’t say that Covid-19 has made me rethink the personal utility of the really big conferences (I don’t attend many), but it does make me miss the curation of smaller groups. The events where hosts put effort into bringing together people with a high degree of purpose and work hard to ensure mixing, those are wonderful. My 2022 will hopefully include a return to events like these.

Working with founders

This is what I really have missed. You might think I’m referring to the time spent with a founder before deciding to make an investment in their startup, and certainly, there are moments where an in-person conversation can be the difference between Deal or No Deal. But I don’t think we’ll ever go back to 100% in-person pitching, especially in the earliest stages of getting to know someone. It’s just too mutually efficient to make a first pitch into a call or video, especially if the founders prefer it.

What I really do miss are the post-investment moments that are so much better in-person — the types of relationships that get built over meals, over walks, and on a whiteboard.

But what I really do miss are the post-investment moments that are so much better in-person — the types of relationships that get built over meals, over walks, and on a whiteboard. Not the perfunctory showing up in person for a board meeting (although sometimes being there is important), but rather the stuff which requires as much EQ (or emotional intelligence) as IQ. And I’m anticipating doing a lot of this in the places our portfolio companies are scattered: the Bay Area, New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, Portland, San Diego, Boston, Salt Lake City, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and so on.

For what it’s worth, I sense lots of startup teams are ready to get back into offices as well or at least have the flexibility to work in-person for the periods where collaboration and culture-building are most essential. If I were early in my career, it would absolutely be my preference to work for a company with an in-office culture (either full-time or hybrid). There’s just so much community and learning-by-osmosis (or serendipity) that comes from being together. So while our VC firm Homebrew definitely invests in companies that are 100% remote/distributed, we also espouse being intentional about what it means to do so and not underinvest in the infrastructure, travel, and skill-building it takes to succeed in this model.

Work-life balance

Do we still call it this? How about just happiness and sanity? I’ve found that I really enjoy driving my kid to school on Friday mornings. I’ve found that playing backgammon with my wife over lunch is nice when our mutual schedules accommodate. I’ve grown increasingly fond of just talking on the phone with a founder for five minutes when they need some help (versus going back and forth over email). Optimizing as best I can for flexibility has been a delight and a privilege, one I hope to maintain. My weekdays are basically 80% Homebrew, 20% family, with my weekends being the reverse. So far it’s worked out pretty well, except I think my dog is going to be shocked when we’re not in the house with her 24/7.

Optimizing as best I can for flexibility has been a delight and a privilege, one I hope to maintain.

Homebrew closed its office in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood last March, and we’ve only been in there a handful of times since. Our lease runs until spring 2022, and I have no idea if we’ll renew it or not. It’s a great space that accommodates our five-person team quite comfortably with flex-desk room for another four to six people. My best guess is that we’ll retain the office — or something like it — but hopefully, see the benefits of a city in transition realized in slightly lower rents. Or maybe not. Perhaps San Francisco rents are positively correlated with VC’s internal rate of return!

I do miss being near my business partner Satya. During the social distancing era, we’ve found ways to safely get together but, to be honest, it’s not frequent enough for me to be optimally happy. Years ago, before we started the firm, my wife and I casually looked at buying a house two doors down from his. Maybe if we’d pulled the trigger I could have had a true Homebrew pod! (Although I’m not sure what the rest of our families would say about this?)

There’s still a lot to figure out over the next few months, but here’s to vaccinations! I hope you all get through the next few months healthy, supported, and thriving.

Why Facebook’s Responsible A.I. Team Needs to Be Able to Lose Money in Order to Do Its Job

‘Oh, your algorithm update lowers revenue and decreases usage? Ship it!’

Photo: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash
 

“Measure what matters and what you measure matters.” There are any number of similar quotations that talk about how the very act of tracking a KPI in an organization causes people to focus on it more, let alone if you’re linking an explicit incentive structure to goals. It’s why, for example, if boards care about ideals like diversity and culture, they should work with CEOs to make sure those stats are first-class citizens on the company dashboards alongside revenue and profit.

It’s even harder when you can’t agree what the right metric should be. As I’ve written before, one of the problems we face as an industry is largely trying to measure current day Web 3.0 with Web 2.0 dashboards. Misinformation, trolling, harassment, polarization, and the resulting negative implications — none of these are as simple to define as CTR or CPM. I myself fell victim to this during my time leading the consumer product team at YouTube. When Google leadership asked us to shift from focusing solely on user growth to also increasing monetization, the team we destaffed to fund the new effort had been working on the comments system. Yup, YouTube comments, which most often resulted in a lot of name-calling, profanity, and worse. We all wanted it to improve, but why did I sacrifice this project in the near term? Because it wasn’t connected to a first-tier KPI, like revenue, uploads, or playbacks. So it had to wait.

But what if you have the right metric to measure—say, the negative externalities of a product—but it turns out that number is loosely negatively correlated with your business KPIs? Like, for example, if polarizing content leads to more short-term engagement, which leads to more active users, which leads to more ad revenue? It’s not crazy to wonder this, and while I don’t believe that it’s a true correlation or that our social platforms are intentionally running at the efficient frontier of anger and profits, I do always wonder what margin pressure does to, say, adequate investment in trust and safety.

Casey Newton’s Platformer article about Facebook’s Responsible A.I. team provoked a combination of eagerness and skepticism. My fear is that even if these teams are actually equipped to study and challenge internally held beliefs about their products, they will be forbidden from making changes that negatively impact business metrics. That is to say, we want responsibility but only when it doesn’t put the stock price at risk. I say this not just (or specifically) about Facebook, but more generally about the complexity of incentives within a corporation. Also, yes, it’s true that companies already make decisions to balance user experience with monetization. During my time at Google and YouTube, there were plenty of experiments with ad load, placement, and so on, and the company never maximized immediate dollars if there was a disproportionate negative impact on, say, user engagement or advertiser ROI. Long-term greedy, I guess, not short term.

But back to this question of how to give a team like Responsible A.I. the ability to decrease dollars, engagement, or growth if they believe it has a positive impact on fairness, responsibility, or whatever other metrics they’re responsible for managing. I’ve got an idea: a budget.


 Yes, a budget! Teams like this should be entrusted to “spend” money up to an annual prespecified amount. It doesn’t mean they have to spend it. Indeed, many gains might be, in this example, revenue neutral or even revenue positive. But let them make decisions consistent with their mandate without having to implicitly (or explicitly) defend why they’re causing the company to leave dollars on the table.

Look, I know this is a weird concept and has all sorts of potential secondary effects: Other changes are made elsewhere in the company to recover the “lost” revenue that turn out to have a different set of negative externalities. It reinforces the idea that fairness comes at the expense of revenue, perhaps giving other teams the ability to give up their “responsibility” and just let this separate A.I. team “fix” everything. Maybe we’ll get to a point where it’s more like carbon offsets, where each product team has to manage their own responsibility budget, and there’s an internal market to trade responsibility points. New challenges require new solutions, and in these cases, I think you’ll need to navigate corporate anthropology, not just corporate algorithms.

Turntable.fm Reminds Me How Much Fun the Web Can Be

What happens when your favorite dead product rises again

Turntable 2021, pretty much the same product (for now).

Usually the first email I open in the morning doesn’t make me scream out “HOLY SHIT!” But “Hey! I plugged in the Turntable servers” will do that to you. It was Billy Chasen, Turntable’s OG founder and CEO, and the email included a password, which I immediately mashed into my web browser. You see, Turntable.fm was the Clubhouse of a decade ago: a bunch of social features that nailed the serendipity of being together in a novel manner while breathing life into a familiar format.

Music, as it became digital, also became lonely. The trade-off in having all the world’s recorded tunes up in the cloud was that a communal experience transformed into a solitary one. Single-player mode. Not because of consumer preferences but because of DRM, label negotiations, and dollars. Turntable immediately brought back the listening party. And it was super fun.

It was spring 2011 and the links started getting passed around. Join me here, now—a late Friday night with just some nerds spinning old-school hip-hop songs from our teenage years. Then some more people. And some more people. And some more people. And before you know it, Union Square Ventures is leading a round and I’m an angel investor in my favorite new product.

Music, as it became digital, also became lonely.

It didn’t work as a business. Labels were not ready to engage in a collaborative discussion. The team was not always rowing in the same direction together. And Turntable eventually went dark. Billy and I stayed lightly in touch as he, and I, grew older and saw and did more things. He has always been able to see around corners and turn human needs/interaction models into products. Sometimes just a bit early. But like with most fun projects, the relationships outlast the startup. (To that point, fun side story: Turntable was also how I met Sahil. He was this young kid who had just built Pinterest’s mobile app and there was an all-out effort to get him to join Turntable. Sacca sold him hard. So did I. He turned us all down because he wanted to do his own thing, which turned out to be Gumroad. Small world.)

Periodically there’d be a Twitter thread about Turntable nostalgia and we’d all reminisce about products long gone that haven’t been adequately replaced (Google Reader, RIP). Someone would chime in with a link to some collaborative playlist tool but that was never the magic of Turntable.

So now I’m hanging out in the iconic I ❤️ the ’80s room, just like back then. It feels comfortable, warm, lived in. The way a good consumer product can. Some startups struggle to find product market fit; Turntable had it, went dark for nearly a decade, and then just turns itself back on with the same PMF. Wow.

What now? Will Turntable become a “company” again? Is it just a joyous few weeks before the server bills become too expensive, or the code too janky? I don’t know and that’s part of the fun. Because right now it’s 2011 baby, and I’m waiting for a DJ spot to open. Gotta get my monkey avi back…

The Baddest Band In Town

In a pre-RATM band, guitarist Tom Morello was shamed by a musician friend about how his guitar strings ran long off the head of the instrument (a now iconic look for him).

“‘Cut your strings! What, you think you’re the baddest band in town?’

And I was like, I’m definitely not the baddest band in town so I cut my strings.

Years later, in Rage Against The Machine, I was in the baddest band in town and so I let my strings go”

A Year of Zoom Genitals, Bourbon Bottles & Child-Rearing

Five Memorable URLs from COVID Season One (aka the last 12 months)

March 11th was “COVID Day One” for many folks, or at least when it crossed from “will this be a big deal?” to “this is a big deal” for America. While much of Silicon Valley was already curtailing travel and starting to work from home, zeitgeist watchers note a perfect storm of the NBA suspending their season, Tom Hanks being diagnosed as positive, WHO declaring a global pandemic and He Which Shall Not Be Named implementing a travel ban (actually a good idea) as the starting point for “this isn’t just the flu.”

Reading Maya Kosoff’s ‘Lost Year’ essay as part of Medium’s Pandemic Reflections made me consider my own past 12 months. Because of my love for this thing we call the World Wide Web, I’m going to do my own reminiscing via Five Links.

The COVID Tracking Project

An oasis in a misinformation desert, the COVID Tracking Project started very ad hoc but was always authoritative and reliable in trying to understand the illness’ spread. Good data helped put so much in perspective: that this thing was running wild, that it was disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities and geographies and that outside of vaccines, the spread *could* be managed via safety practices.

As the numbers got larger and we almost numbed to the milestones, I stopped focusing on the quantitative and transitioned to the qualitative, namely how to emotionally support my family and my community. The COVID Tracking Project will discontinue updating on its first anniversary (March 7, 2021) but it was one of the URLs that defined my first year of COVID.

When Casey Newton & I Got Zoombombed

Early on this whole WFH thing was kinda silly and fun in the tech industry. People were adjusting to a life of video conferencing (remember when dogs and babies jumping into the frame was novel!), and along with my friend Casey, there were two weeks we ran 5pm Zoom Happy Hours with guests and fun and surprises.

One memorable happy hour involved a Zoombombing where, because we’d left the event link public, some troll took control of the screen and started showing really graphic porn videos. Subsequently Zoom ended up changing a bunch of meeting defaults to prevent this sort of misbehavior and I turned down all the news requests to come speak about our experience. My mantra is “control your first page of Google results” and I wasn’t sure I wanted my above-the-fold vanity search to produce evergreen dick pics.

Now a year later, it’s clear why virtual event platforms, gathering spaces like Clubhouse and other social apps have boomed. We’re primates and we need to be together!

Raising a Kid During COVID

This is my own post from last April, about what lessons do I want my daughter to learn from this last year vs what do I not want her to overlearn. We’ve been so fortunate to have resources and be in a personal situation that supports the flexibility to work from home relatively easily. And while I know this has protected our family from certain hardships, I don’t pretend that it’s an impervious shield against socio-emotional distress. When a quarter of her school-age existence has been spent in lockdown it would be nuts to assume there’s no impact. So we focus on resilience, and expressing our feelings, and being kind to each other. And being very excited for when she can act upon the desire to see and hug her friends without flinching and stopping herself.

The K-Shaped Recovery

“The stock market is not the economy.” I heard this a lot in 2020 when trying to reconcile the overall growth in the public markets, and hypergrowth in tech, compared to the pandemic reality for so many Americans. I got to say things like “I’ve never ordered so much Goldbelly!” while others lost paychecks and family members. My friend Nikhil summarized so many of my thoughts in his essay A Widening Gap.

A widening gap. A gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” between those with disposable income and those that don’t have jobs. A gap between fact and fiction, between those that have access to the truth and those that are fed lies non-stop. A gap that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, certainly, but also by the forces of technology, media, and politics, not just in the last four years, but for the past decade.

It will take considerable work, across technology, media, and government, to reverse this course. There isn’t a simple solution that will be the next big thing in 2021; instead, it’s going to take years of effort.

What I appreciate about Nikhil’s blog post was that it’s not just about tech’ing our way out of this dynamic, but about empathy, caring and even some sacrifice. “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is classic startup advice and I feel the same way about the beginnings of what it takes to reverse these inequality dynamics. Beyond structural change, if we each just cared for a handful of other people in a way that extended beyond our immediate circles, we’d make so much progress. It’s why I love direct action nonprofits such as Human Utility.

My Virtual Drinking Buddies

For years when people asked what my hobbies were I’d kind of shrug my shoulders. There were activities I enjoyed (movies! friends! work!) but nothing that I’d consider a ‘hobby.’ Maybe I’d been overly influenced by the people around me who, when they pursued something, did so with a focus that turned “jogging” into “complete marathons on all continents” and “cooking” into “I’m spending the summer in France as an apprentice pastry baker.” If a hobby equated to something you spent too much time and money on, then my only hobby was therapy!

But I’d gotten tired of not having an answer and started telling folks my hobbies were coffee and notebooks (the paper note-taking kind). These were honest answers as I do enjoy researching, purchasing and consuming both of these, but there’s only so far you can go with notebooks and on the coffee front, I cared more about good beans than necessarily experimenting with every prep method, which meant the subreddits were a bit too much for me.

Fast-forward to the beginning of 2020 and the whiplash we all experienced with travel stopping, restaurants closing and our homes becoming work, play, live 24/7. We’ve all adopted new coping mechanisms and found new aspects to our relationships. Some even used the time to reconsider where they work or move to new cities. Me? I got into whiskey.

Before sharing more I want to acknowledge that alcohol as a “hobby” can be jarring for many. People close to me have dealt with various addictions, including alcohol, and many more have removed it from their lifestyle in the interest of health, mental clarity and other benefits. Fortunately I’m not prone to over-consumption and my interest has been as much about the history, business and people around the spirit as actual consumption (I’m basically a 1–4 oz type of guy — for reference, the average 750ml bottle is roughly 25 ounces).

I’d previously been whiskey-curious, buying a bottle every now and then, trying different bourbons in a bar and so on. But about a year ago I joined a local Bay Area whiskey group that I’ve enjoyed learning from, sharing with and doing virtual tastings. It’s fun to have a space that’s not about tech, not about politics and just about guys and gals with a passion. Thanks also to Caroline and my daughter for giving up some shelf space in the basement for my “hobby.”

Ok, so those are five links that have been important to me through the first 12 months of COVID. Here’s hoping all the graphs continue to head in the right directions and we’re able to help and celebrate one another in-person soon!

Notes and More

The first two months of 2021 are gone! I’ve tried to be very intentional, greeting my family and friends with statements like “welcome to the third Thursday of February” (or similar). 2020 was such a weird blur of speed and slowness that I’m trying this year to be more aware. Probably as a coping tactic!

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Etta + Billie soapsSmartSweets Sugar Free Gummy Bears. Taylor Swift’s re-recordings.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Plaid is a developer-first company making it easy for financial data to move between apps. They’re hiring in a variety of roles across US, Canada, Europe and Remote.

Why There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Startup Within a Big Company’

You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a true startup can

Noam Bardin of Waze. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

I’d exchanged DMs with Waze co-founder and CEO Noam Bardin a few weeks back to ask about learnings from his last few years inside Google. Waze is the $1 billion-plus acquisition that people, well, forgot about despite its size and growth. I mean, in all the “Big Tech” regulations discussions we regularly hear about Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram and Google/YouTube, but Waze just kind of flies under the radar. Bardin replied that he was leaving Google at the end of January and would do some sharing after. Boy, understatement.

Today, Bardin published a personal essay titled “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?” and it’s a really telling, thoughtful, honest post. You should read it all but let me share a specific paragraph here:

I took the acquisition as a personal challenge. I believed that I could build out Waze within Google, breaking the myth about what happens to companies after being acquired by large corporations. Looking back, this reminds me of the Western CEO and China. Every Western CEO thinks she or he will be the first to be a successful Western brand in China and many try and launch a service there. The Chinese are used to this Western arrogance and welcome the foreigners. Many quarters and dollars later, the Western CEO leaves with some China experience and the Chinese partner keeps the IP, money, business… You cannot fight the nature of the beast, this is China. Same thing happened to me in China pre acquisition… So, to complete the analogy, I was the naive startup leader believing that I can build out Waze within Google to its full potential and conquer the beast, regardless of its nature. This irrational belief is critical for a startup leader but challenging in the corporate environment.

There is no such thing as a startup inside a big company. There’s various leash lengths to your freedom, but you’re no longer a startup. You get a bunch of things in return and, for many people, it can be a wonderful outcome, but you’re no longer a startup. I love that Bardin took this challenge and stayed well beyond when he needed to in order to set up a management team who could carry the product forward, as a business unit.

I got to see the YouTube acquisition firsthand and I think, for at least the first few years, we were the best version of “independent” you could ask for. Two people are primarily responsible for this: Chad Hurley and Eric Schmidt. Hurley, and his co-founder Steven Chen, had gone through the PayPal/eBay merger so they were the proverbial “wise beyond their years” when it came to what being bought meant and all the trade-offs that came with it. Schmidt had promised a high degree of autonomy and kept his word. We did deals with Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. We hired people directly into YouTube. We made acquisitions. I even got to route around some of the stuff Bardin pointed out as being especially frustrating with regards to PeopleOps (firing folks, optimizing bonuses for high performers).

When Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013, I shared some of my advice with the team, first publicly in a blog post and then in a private conversation with some Yahoo folks who read the post and reached out. We all know what happened there and I’m glad Tumblr is now with Automattic.

This stuff all works in reverse, too: When someone tells you that there’s an opportunity to “build a startup within a big company,” don’t believe them. It’s just not true. You can work on experimental products in a mechanism that tries to counterbalance some of the gravitational pull and processes that a big company otherwise uses to manage itself, but it’s not a startup. You will never be able to take the brand risks, the legal risks, or the partnerships risks that a startup can. To paraphrase someone I know who tried to lead one of these projects at Google (and had done an actual startup themselves): It can never be like a startup so long as my team has the Google badge on their belt and walks into the fancy cafeteria every day.

This wasn’t a comment about co-location; it was a comment about the working style, the expectations, the flying without a net, that high performing startups require and the people they attract. It’s not that those Googlers were “better” or “worse” than startup hires, but just that startups are completely different.

You can find experimental groups within larger companies — Area 120 at Google and NPE at Facebook — but they’re not startups.

If you want to be at a startup, join a startup. As Bardin says, “I am confident that the Waze acquisition was a success. The problem was me — believing I can keep the startup magic within a corporation, in spite of all the evidence showing the opposite.”

Three Types Of Startup Advisors You Might Not Have Thought About (But Will Help You Win)

Advisors can be so much more than social proof and tactical advice

“Can we put you as an advisor in our deck? You don’t even need to do anything and we’ll give you equity. It would be a big help for our fundraise.” This was the proposition offered to me surprisingly frequently during my pre-Homebrew days. You see, the demand for “startup advisors” were going through a little bit of a boomlet.

AngelList had just started and their company profile page had a bunch of “Advisor” slots to populate that were displayed in the same visual design as investors and team members. This subtly started to create social proof pressure to fill out those available spaces in the most impressive way possible. Never underestimate the power of defaults!

Anyhow, fast-forward to 2021 and it almost feels like startup advisor roles have fallen a bit out of fashion as everyone scrambles to be an angel investor, a scout or solo capitalist. Many of the people who previously might not have had access to capital are now able to invest their own dollars, or someone else’s, and this has much greater social proof for both the company and the individual. Most of the companies we back figure out how to use advisors in compelling ways, it’s just not as public as it used to be.

That said, there are three types of advisors that I don’t see as commonly utilized by early stage startups — at least the ones we’re not advising 😉

The “I’m Going To Recruit You Down the Road” Advisor

Great founders are always recruiting. Often for open roles but also playing the long game, building relationships with passive senior candidates who either aren’t ready to leave their current job, or are more interested in the opportunity once you’re a bit further along. Rather than just making a note to ‘grab coffee’ every once in a while, I suggest looking to bring them on as advisors. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment on their part (or significant equity), but just start giving them some tie to your startup and some incentive to maintain the relationship. Obviously this won’t work if they’re current employed at a competitor but otherwise it’s a half-step in the right direction. Mutual try-before-you-buy and gives them a chance to better understand the company.

The “Set Up My Functional Leads for Success” Advisor

I’m a big proponent of startups hiring talented high-ceiling people who are earlier in their careers and haven’t necessarily yet done the job they’re being recruited for. For example, if you meet someone who has been a PMM at Google for a few years on a high performing team and is itching to get into a role that allows her to spread her wings more, grab her. Don’t worry that she hasn’t had a senior title or whatever. Just get her on board and set her up for success. And one way to help her is to make sure she has a mentor. Not just inside of the company but outside.

Ask her if there’s someone senior in her career that’s been a great manager, and if so, bring them on as an equity-compensated advisor to your company. Don’t make it her job to convince them to support her ongoing, give them some skin in the game. You’ll be setting the new hire up for success and this should pay off in multiples. I’ve also found that during recruiting process telling a candidate like this that they’ll get an ‘advisor equity budget’ to bring people closer to the company who can be useful is a signal of trust and agency that helps close them.

The “Customer Council” Advisor

This works especially well when you’re selling into a non-tech industry because getting a bit of equity in a startup is even more novel and exciting. A sales and marketing tactic as much (or even more) than a customer development one, try setting up a Customer Council Advisory Board. For relatively small amounts of equity you can create a group of 3–12 folks from your industry who feel a mutual obligation to help make you successful. It’s a great group to use for networking, press quotes, product feedback and such. Of course avoid direct conflict of interests — i.e. these people can’t be your current buyers (most of the time) but they can certainly be from customer organizations (their own policies permitting) and from larger customers that you’ll be targeting a few years down the road.

So hopefully you can make use of advisors in new and interesting ways! Remember, the standard agreements are two years in length, have a 3–6 month vesting cliff (with monthly thereafter) and preserve right of either party to terminate. Have you had success using advisors in a nontraditional manner? Let me know!

Notes and More

Give everyone the vaccine! Try and prioritize the vulnerable first of course, but let’s focus on speed of rollout too. Everyone who gets vaccinated makes it safer for everyone else.

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Etta + Billie soapsSmartSweets Sugar Free Gummy BearsThis essay about the widening economic gap between tech and most everything else.

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

Plaid is a developer-first company making it easy for financial data to move between apps. They’re hiring in a variety of roles across US, Canada, Europe and Remote.