Menu

Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

Fred Wilson’s public record

Fred Wilson:

AVC has been going on for almost 14 years now. I write every day, mostly about tech and investing in startups and observations about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

He goes on to say that this has created a public record. A record that shows when he was right and when he was wrong. And he really likes that.

So do I. I wish I wrote as consistently as Wilson does. I really like having a public record.

Side note: AVC won blog of the year in 2009 here on my blog. I wish I still gave out awards like that.

How Microsoft is doing

Fred Wilson:

Even more impressive in many ways, is what Satya Nadella has done at Microsoft. He slayed the Windows Everywhere albatross that was holding Microsoft back for most of the post Gates era and has made Microsoft relevant again in the world of tech. Windows is enjoying a resurgence, the Office app suite is finally and successfully moving to the cloud, and Microsoft’s cloud offerings are strong and getting stronger.

Five years ago you’d walk into any developer conference and all you’d see were Mac laptops. If you saw a Windows laptop it was either running a distribution of Linux or that developer’s company didn’t have the budget to afford company Macs.

Today, Microsoft is on the lips of nearly every developer I talk to. And the conversations are about building products using Microsoft hardware and software. The languages and frameworks being used to build these products are ones that were traditionally a real pain to use on Windows like Bash, Rails, PHP, Apache, nginx, mySQL etc. etc. And today, its easy.

This trend has been building.

How is Microsoft doing? For the relatively small segment of the world that builds software products; I’d say they are doing extremely well. And with Surface Studio I’m guessing a huge number of artists are jumping from the Mac to PC. Now, can they recapture students and consumers and mobile? We’ll see. They have an awful lot of work to do there.

Farewell

Fred Wilson recently published a post that I can wholeheartedly agree with him on. Regarding employees leaving your organization he gives the following advice:

The thing I caution against is the tendency to get upset at departures and departing employees. I’ve seen leaders take the mob boss approach of “your are dead to me now” with departing employees. The better approach, which I think is a hallmark of great companies, is the idea that departing employees who leave on great terms are roving ambassadors for your organization. After all, you never know when you are going to come across someone again in business. And it might be a situation where you need something from them.

I’ve hired, I’ve fired, and I’ve been the one that has gotten the news of the departure of a valued member of the team many, many times throughout my career. I’ve also been the one to do the departing.

Let me recount to you a few of these situations and what I learned from them.

First, I’ll start with my own very early career. For a few years I hopped from job to job in relatively short order trying to find the right fit. One such hop was to a healthcare group of companies where I was tasked with managing their IT infrastructure. I did some pretty fun things there (it was the first time I used fiber optics, wow) and learned a lot in only a few months but I was over my head a bit and I knew it. I saw an ad for a web programming job I jumped at the chance.

This is when I learned how to properly allow someone to quit their job. I walked into my then boss’ office, crying (I was 19 and knew the man personally since I was 9 or so). I really felt like I was letting him down by quitting only a few months after getting hired. He asked me why I was quitting. I don’t remember my exact words but I said that I really thought my career was going to be on the web and not in setting up networks or debugging terminals. I wanted to write code.

His response to me has stuck with me ever since and I believe it is why I’ve always allowed people to depart any organization I’ve been part of in the best possible way. He said: “Colin, you have to make the right decision for your family.” (I was newly married at this point.) He continued… “If you think this is the right decision you have to do it. And if our company could have been a stepping stone for you then that is great.”

As Wilson points out above, if he would have flown off the handle I would have never had a relationship with him again. Instead, whenever he needed me I was there for many years afterwards.

Second, fast forward to when an employee of a company that I was part of came to me first to break the news of their departure. They were trying to do damage control by telling me first. I wasn’t this person’s boss. But they knew their boss would lose it. They were right. I tried my best to act as humanely as my boss did from when I was 19. I wished them well. Then I did my best to settle down the boss prior to the news getting to them. It worked out in the end and that person is still a friend to everyone at that company to this day.

Third, fast forward again to when an employee and friend left the company that I owned. This is much different. Being part of a company and owning a company are two very different things. The loyalty you feel to your own company far outweighs any devotion you may feel to one that you do not (even though I consider myself a very loyal employee). When you own the company, and an early employee leaves, it stabs you directly to the heart. You believe these early people have your back through thick and thin. When you find out they don’t and they jump to whatever is next it hurts terribly. I learned a lot from this experience. Years later and I’m still reeling over this person’s departure.

Even though I was more upset than I had ever been in my life I believe I still handled myself in the same way that my boss when I was 19 did. I gave them no pushback, no hurtful words were shared, and I did my very best not to speak too poorly about them behind their backs to others within the company.

The lesson that I learned from this experience is that many people out there view a job as “just a job”. Others fit into several categories. Some small percentage are willing to ruin their lives in order to have the company make it. Some people look up to these individuals. I do not. I admire their accomplishments and their drive is incredible but I fit somewhere between “just a job” and “willing to die”.

I’m glad Wilson brought this up in his post and I’m very glad he’s mentoring the entrepreneurs he talks to about this topic.

Is the Apple Watch a flop?

Fred Wilson going over his predictions from last year:

The Apple Watch was a flop. This is the one I took the most heat on. So I feel a bit vindicated on this point.

No sources cited here. I have read many “the Apple Watch is a flop” pieces but none of them have convinced me of that using any data. Anecdotally, I suppose, you could look around you and count how many people you know with an Apple Watch and determine that it isn’t an overwhelming runaway hit. However, based on the shipping expectations for the Watch early on I would say it met or exceeded Apple’s own expectations for the launch. I’m also willing to bet there were a lot of Watches as presents this season.

The Apple Watch could be called a flop if it sold so poorly and customer demand or interest was so low that Apple totally shelved the project. But they haven’t. I’m willing to bet they made a lot of money on the Watch so far (far more than any of their competitors in the same space). And I’m willing to bet that in 2016-2017 Apple will double down on the Watch and make some incredible improvements to every piece of it.

My take; again, comparing it to the original iPhone. When I paid $1,200 in cash for Eliza and I to get an original iPhone many people thought I was crazy. For many months I only knew a handful of people with an iPhone. Everyone saw the iPhone and immediately wanted one but none of them wanted the first version or to pay a premium for that first version. However, here we are 8 years later and the iPhone business itself is still larger than all of Microsoft. So my take is that the launch of the Apple Watch may have only just met the expectations of Apple but didn’t meet the expectations of the press (not surprisingly).

Someone like Fred Wilson, who invests in both short term and longterm businesses and obviously does very well at doing that, should know better than to call a product a flop before having any official data.

Stop calling businesses unicorns

Me, on Twitter early this morning from bed:

Startup culture is such that the word unicorn is used to describe a successful business. Imagine if the culture fostered success more often.

Then, Fred Wilson on his blog this morning:

I hate the word unicorn. It’s using fantasy to describe something very much reality. But I don’t want to digress from the larger point I’m making to go down the unicorn rat hole. Just please don’t use that word around me. I will likely throw up and that won’t be pleasant.

We’re on the same page today Fred. Likely because during AOL TechCrunch Disrupt the word unicorn is being thrown around like crazy.

The conversation around tech startups has been that “90% of companies started fail”. Hence, 10% may have some success and perhaps 1% or 2% will be incredibly successful. That is why the tech press and others call them unicorns — they are incredibly rare.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. More businesses can succeed if we:

  • Change our mindset for what success is
  • Create a culture of helping small businesses succeed
  • Don’t make the bar for failure so low

Let’s take these one a time.

What is success to you? For a business to be successful depends very much on what it set out to do from the beginning. Some businesses are built purely for fun … so the metric for success here is; are you having fun? Some businesses are started with dreams of changing how the world works in some way like mass communication networks or solving issues like access to clean water. So the measure of success for these companies should be; are people all over the world communicating using your product and do more people have access to clean drinking water than before you started, respectively.

Success in startup land is typically about, as Fred Wilson pointed out in his post this morning, valuation. Why did Slack take tens of millions of dollars that its founder explicitly said it didn’t need? Because in the current environment you take money when you can and get the best valuation possible. Stewart Butterfield is simply playing the hand he has been dealt.

How we do change the culture to help more companies succeed? If we change the mindset from; how many unicorns will we start/find/invest in to, how many businesses can we start and keep in business for as long as possible — everything changes. Incredibly successful rocket-ship-like growth companies will still exist and will still earn their investors a lot of money and will still be rare… but everyone below that tier may have a better chance at success.

What is failure? And how can we make it harder for businesses to fail? Some ideas die because they are bad ideas. And that is OK. Sometimes you don’t know a bad idea until you try it. However, so many really great ideas die because the business dies. And a lot of times the business dies because it was ran poorly or didn’t reach its target market. Believe me, I know.

Remember my post Applaud when people make things? This is how you, whether you’re an investor or “just a consumer” can help businesses thrive. The next time you see a good idea try to support it. With your money, with a tweet, a blog post, tell your friends, anything. Every little bit helps that business stay alive. And, if you’re an investor or board member of a company that has a great product or idea, try to support them with more than just your money. Push customers and partners and talent to them. If you see them heading for a brick wall speak up!

Let’s help more companies succeed and stop using the word unicorn. I suggest; Rapid Growth Business.

Trying iOS, Android, and Windows

Fred Wilson:

I plan to go back to iOS when the next iPhone ships, and then back to Android six months after that. In this way, I can stay current on both operating systems and ecosystems which I think is useful in my business.

I wish I could do this again. For a time I was when we had a number of testing devices laying around. I’d pick one up and using it for a weekend here and there. During that time my eyes were opened to what was available on all platforms.

At that time Windows Phone stuck out to me as the winner over Android but iOS was still in the lead. I wrote:

Windows Phone is a much better competitor to iOS than Android currently is. It is clean, simple to use, vastly different than iOS (which is good since Android and iOS just bite off each other with each release), and really fun to play with. The problem? Official apps.

And official apps are still a problem on Windows. Windows Phone was great the way Mac OS was great for years. Microsoft just didn’t stick with it. They got beat. And now it seems like they are moving on.

It was expensive to have multiple new and up-to-date devices in service at the same time. I think our monthly bill was roughly $700 or so. Not cheap for a small business. I like Wilson’s approach a bit more. Switch between devices completely once a year or so. Perhaps I’ll find a way to do that too.

 

Blogging every weekday for 30 days

Who’s in for the challenge? I’ll give it a shot.

Fred Wilson pointed to Lockhart Steele and Elizabeth Spiers. Spiers mentioned trying it for 30 days so I thought that was a good idea.

Writing has never been an issue for me. I’ve typed a bunch of posts here. But I’ve strayed from the personal stuff and have been all over the place. Also 90% of my posts are links to other things. So, for the next 30 days I’ll attempt to jot something down here. Something personal or a thought or … well … anything. No idea what it will be. But I’ll try. It might be fun. Want to try too?

(If you don’t have your own blog you can always consider using the same platform I do, which I helped build, called Barley CMS. Which helps pay for my coffee, food, and house. Or, you can try Tumblr, WordPress.com, or Squarespace. Which do not give me any money at all but whatever.)

 

Yes, it is more work to subscribe than to follow, but that is OK with me

Fred Wilson, in A Founder’s Notebook, describing how “hard” it is to subscribe to a blog that isn’t on Tumblr but is on the open internet.

My only complaint is that its not on Tumblr, where it would be an instant and easy follow. It takes more work to follow a blog when its on the open Internet (when you don’t use RSS. i don’t).

Sigh. He’s right, of course, but … sigh.

In the heyday of Google Reader it was the exact same amount of work to subscribe to a blog’s RSS feed as it is to follow a Tumblog on Tumblr. Just one click. But now, with the RSS market so fragmented and waning it has, indeed, become more work to subscribe to blogs on the open Internet than it is to follow on Tumblr or Twitter.

There are initiatives in motion to help with this, but, like so many other great things on the web (see: microformats), they may simply never catch on at scale.

For those interested in how I subscribe to blogs both on the open Internet and elsewhere; I’m currently using Vienna on Mac as my feed reader. I do not read feeds on my iPad (though I used to) or my iPhone. I only read on Mac and filter things into Unmark to read/watch/buy/listen later. For me to subscribe to a blog is pretty painless; copy the URL of the blog, open Vienna, click Subscribe. (I don’t even need to paste.) So it is three steps rather than the one step that Fred needs to take on Tumblr.

I’ll take that hit for blogs I love to be on the open internet any day.

When will Bitcoin be valueable?

Bitcoin is going a little nuts this week. But the price at which a bitcoin exchanges at isn’t the only factor by which you should value the currency. Far, far from it.

As Fred Wilson puts it:

Everyone focuses on the price of Bitcoin these days and it is no wonder why. But for Bitcoin to be anything more than a store of value, we need to see a transactional ecosystem develop. When the citizens of the world will be able to buy and sell from each other and from retailers of all shapes and sizes via Bitcoin, then we will have truly realized the potential of a global digital currency.

The more transactions occur with Bitcoin, especially within very well established marketplaces, the more value a bitcoin can hold. Why? Because if the price of a single bitcoin is too volatile then the currency will never truly end up being a global alternative. No one can bank on it. (Pun intended.)

Bitcoins need to be saved and exchanged by entities that currently have real value and that have a real way of exchanging those bitcoins around the world. This currency can’t be reserved for the technophiles out there that are trying to simply by low and sell high. Imagine if, say, some of the largest corporations in the world began to accept this currency and had a few bitcoin in savings. This would help to both establish bitcoin in the marketplaces and stabilize it.

The real value will start to come in when a fair number of businesses accept bitcoin around the world for goods and services and people stop simply thinking about the current exchange rate.

We’re years away from seeing the true potential for and what will happen with P2P currencies. It will be exciting to watch.

I’d love to see Windows Phone become the third horse in the smartphone OS race

Fred Wilson, on Android and iOS:

But I find myself rooting hard for Apple now. I sense the danger they are in and I don’t want either smartphone OS to be so dominant that we lose the level playing field we have now. It’s very important for startups, innovation, and an open mobile ecosystem for all.

It is true. Apple has been dominant for too long and in some ways Android is really beginning to creep on their turf. There are many layers to the smartphone market onion but I look at three things when I try to determine who is winning: market share, profit, number of official apps.

Each of these three categories are important and any single company can focus on any combination of the three and still be “winning” or at least competing. I think Apple has focused on design quality and number of official apps as their primary ways to maintain profitshare. And they earn the lion’s share of the money being earned in the smartphone market. I think Android has focused on low cost, “open” offerings to capture market share. And they’re obviously doing a great job at growing.

By capturing market share, as Wilson mentioned in his post, Android will now end up capturing the official applications it was missing out on before because Android is where the people are. Or, at least as many people or more than on iOS. Wilson posits that iOS and Android are near parity. I think he’s right. And I think we’re about to see a shift in perception in Android as more and more official apps are made either first or at the same time as they are for iOS. See: Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Imagine if Instagram was made today and made only for Android. Something like that could happen any day.

Because of my work I have an iPhone 5, a Samsung Galaxy S4, a Motorola Razr, and a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone on my desk. The iPhone 5 has been my daily use phone since June 29, 2007. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is an amazing technical achievement – with the eye watching and all – but overall I am not in love with Android. Certainly not as much as my friend Paul. It is just too busy, too much going on, there always seems to be so much running. Android is far from simple. Not to mention that the manufacturers and telcos end up adding so much junk to the phone it can seem hard to navigate through. The S4 came with three browsers and four ways to buy music pre-installed! I realize this isn’t Android’s “fault” but as a consumer it is certainly confusing.

Regarding Windows Phone

Windows Phone OS

Windows Phone is probably not going to take off if they haven’t found a way to do it already. But can I just say this? Windows Phone is a much better competitor to iOS than Android currently is. It is clean, simple to use, vastly different than iOS (which is good since Android and iOS just bite off each other with each release), and really fun to play with. The problem? Official apps.

Most of the applications on Windows Phone are absolutely abysmal if they aren’t the official apps. The Instagram apps end up getting their photos deleted from Instagram because they use Private APIs. Not to mention that when compared to Instagram they’re terrible. The Dropbox apps, which aren’t official, are simply unusable. All of the official apps, however, such as Twitter, Spotify, and others are superior to their iOS counterparts in a number of ways. I love the Spotify app on Windows Phone.

As the smartphone market matures from people buying their first smartphone to people buying their second, third, and fourth smartphones people are going to come to expect the quality they find on iOS and now on Android. The official applications are, in general, amazingly well-made and work great. If someone gets a Windows Phone as their second or third smartphone they are simply going to think that the applications on it are poor.

I think Windows Phone “the OS” is great. But I think Windows Phone “the business” doesn’t have a focus. They aren’t focused on market share by offering amazingly cheap hardware. They aren’t focused on having the best official apps. And they aren’t focused on profit. I don’t know what Windows Phone stands for besides Microsoft simply having an OS in the mobile space. And I certainly don’t see enough ads for Windows Phone.

I wish Windows Phone had a better shot. I love the Lumia. If it had a few more official applications on it I’d switch to it from my iPhone 5 in a heartbeat. I haven’t tried the Lumia 1020 but if it is even better than the 920 I could see myself switching in spite of the application debacle. But I don’t know if Windows Phone has a chance. I don’t know what they should focus on to get to parity with Android and iOS and I don’t even know if there is room in the market – large as it may be – for a third horse.

I agree with Wilson that Android and iOS are near parity but I’d love to see Windows Phone become the third horse in the smartphone OS race.

Single User Utility In a Social System

Don’t get knocked off your feet by the sheer strength of my agreement with Fred Wilson on Single User Utility In a Social System:

One of the most important lessons we took from delicious was the value of single user utility in social systems. It might seem odd that systems designed to leverage interactions between people can have (should have?) single person utility. But I strongly believe they should.

In short; single user utility is the fact that an application or service can be valuable to a single user with or without the social components like the network, sharing, etc.

Delicious is a good example of this, as Wilson describes, but there are many others. Path, Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr, the now discontinued Nilai, and many more have their own single user utility.

Bad examples? Google , Instagram. Both of these would be fairly meaningless without the social components.

Social components should multiply the value of a service not be the only value of a service.

Management as administration

Joel Spolsky guest-posting on Fred Wilson’s AVC blog about The Management Team:

This is my view of management as administration—as a service corps that helps the talented individuals that build and sell products do their jobs better. Attempting to see management as the ultimate decision makers demotivates the smart people in the organization who, without the authority to do what they know is right, will grow frustrated and leave. And if this happens, you won’t notice it, but you’ll be left with a bunch of yes-men, who don’t particularly care (or know) how things should work, and the company will only have one brain – the CEO’s. See what I mean about “it doesn’t scale?”

Precisely.

Do sanity checks on your reporting

In my extremely limited experience Board meetings are generally prepared for hours or minutes before they’re held. The vast majority of the information may be collected a few days prior but a lot of little tweaks are done just before game time.

This is usually for good reason. The leadership team of the company that are responsible for reporting to the Board are typically “heads down” working very hard on moving their company forward and reporting to the Board a bunch of financial data is the last thing on their mind for much of the quarter. But these Board meetings are not only beneficial in one direction — they also provide the heads of the company a time to take a good look at their financials and do some thinking on their own. Without the deadline of a Board meeting looming this would be done less and less often and that could lead to big problems should small problems not be caught early enough.

Fred Wilson’s MBA Monday series of posts today had one on calculating Burn Rate (the amount of money a company is purging without recuperating it) and in it he says that, as a Board, they’ll do sanity checks on the data reported by the company to be sure everything adds up.

“Whenever I get a version of this more sophisticated calculation of burn rate, I always do a sanity check by comparing to the “back of the envelope” method just to be sure they are in the same ballpark.”

These sanity checks are a good thing for the company to do beforehand so that the Board doesn’t need to call you out on it. I’ve seen this happen many times. We’ve reported numbers that we thought were just fine only to find out something simply did not add up. Partially because the people that were putting together the numbers were staring at these numbers for hours and hours at a time. Sometimes things can begin to get fuzzy. That is why these “back of the envelope” sanity checks that Wilson suggest are so vital. They are simple calculations that can be done just to be sure the other, more complex, calculations are even close. This will save you a lot of time and embarrassment.

As a side note, I’ve never been envious of being the person responsible for putting all of this data together. I’ve never been tasked with that responsibility and I’m glad for it. But I think it is an excellent exercise for anyone in the company to have a crack at running through the numbers and pulling your hair out a bit while doing it. You’ll learn a lot.

Om on writing

Happy Anniversary (sort of) to Om Malik of Gigaom for a decade of blogging. I haven’t shared much about Om on this blog save this experience from Wordcamp 2007 in San Francisco when I wasn’t feeling very well at all (travel often makes me sick).

When lunch break hit, I was hurting pretty badly. So I ended up sitting just outside the Swedish American Hall for a while and finally, while Om and I were speaking outside, Om said: “Go get some rest buddy.” Good advice.

That is Om in a nutshell. Easily one of the nicest and hardest working guys around.

His and Fred Wilson’s post made me try to figure out exactly when I began blogging. My best guess is somewhere in 1997. Unlike Om I haven’t been blogging every single day and I only made my living on blogging for a short period of time in these last 14 or so years. Someday I’ll have to write up my experiences though… it’d be fun.