Thank you Paul

I had a dream last night in which I was reading on the Internet that if you don’t have shoes handy you can cut a peach in half and stick your foot in it as a shoe replacement.

Emily my wife was hurrying me to get out of the house and I couldn’t find my shoes so I did the above.

Because peaches are juicy, I wrapped sandwich bags around the peaches on my feet and pulled socks over the sandwich bags.

Paul my brother (he passed away in the spring), seeing this, said, “that won’t work.”

And I realized yes of course it wouldn’t. Peaches are soft. I took a few steps and found that the peaches provided no foot protection at all and were getting smashed and pulped with every step I took.

I opened my computer to leave a comment on the blog where I read this tip.

“Sort of can’t believe I tried this. Doesn’t work. ” —

Emily yells from downstairs, “what are you doing up there? We have to go!”

A Eulogy for my Brother

My brother Paul died in March 2015, at the age of 37, from lung cancer – he was not a smoker. He was an amazing person: a neurosurgeon, scientist & writer, trained and loved at the world’s best educational and medical institutions. I gave a eulogy for him at Stanford Memorial Church, and some have asked me to provide a written version.

Here it is. I don’t know how well translates from speech to print, but: here goes.

We stand in memory, and in awe, of Paul. Not because Paul was exceptional – he was – but because he was not merely exceptional. Paul was also normal: flawed, real, human, mortal, specific.

Paul is my brother. I want to tell you more about him.

Paul was exceptional. He was not only intelligent, perceptive, clear – more than that, Paul had an unfailing, unflagging, relentless insistence on correctness.

Paul and I got into chess when we were kids. Actually, he got into Chess and I got pulled along in the wake. For Paul, playing Chess was not about fun. It was about total and complete mastery and understanding of the game.

After school, this went down, day after day.

I would be watching cartoons.

Paul would interrupt and say, “want to play chess?”

Me: No.

Paul: C’mon, let’s.

Me: Nah.

Paul: What’s the point of playing the game if you don’t want to get better?

He was obsessed and he would guilt me into playing, game after game. It was exhausting. It wasn’t fun. I really did not and could not get into it in the same way he did. 

Paul was exceptional.

Paul was insistent on correctness not just in chess, of course. But in everything.

He was insistent on correctness even in the face of the hardest human problem: death. Paul could not leave death alone. He picked the hardest thing the human mind can contemplate, and dedicated his life to understanding it – as a thinker and as a surgeon. He had to confront it. Embrace it. Know it. This was his unfailing, unflagging quest in life. And he succeeded.

Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin

So wrote TS Eliot in “Whispers of Immortality,” He could have been writing about Paul.

I was with Paul when he died on Monday, March 9th in room E261, at Stanford Hospital. He died with total mental clarity on what was happening to his body, and he made a decision that it was time to go, with his baby daughter Cady in his arms, and his family around him. Paul chose to forgo invasive life support, seeing, the doctor he was, what that would mean for him and his family. No compromises, no loose ends, no reconsiderations: Paul saw death, as he had done as a doctor so many times before, now he saw it firsthand, confronted it, embraced it, knew it.

Paul understood death.

“He died” – that sentence is worth understanding, because its syntactic structure applies to Paul in a way, I think, won’t apply to many of us and has applied to few of those who have gone before us.

Death did not happen to Paul. He, as the actor, the subject, of the sentence, chose this verb – to die. He. Died. He accepted and embraced his mortality – as an active, lucid agent – not as a victim.

How many human lives that have come forth, lived, and died, over the two million years of our species’ time on this planet – how many can we say understood life and death like Paul did? I just don’t think very many, at all.

In dying in the way Paul did and in living the way he did, he reached an apex of human understanding and a kind of perfection that few do. I stand in awe of this. That is the miracle of his being.

Paul was exceptional.

Paul was normal. He liked bacon. And a fine steak. And basically all other meats.

Paul was for quite some time a vegetarian, in the most convoluted, inane sense of the word. He knew that being a vegetarian, is you know, probably the right thing to do.

Paul couldn’t quite do it. I can remember, I think it at 521 Court Street, the apartment in Brooklyn that Matty Merrill, Chris Cary and I shared about ten years ago – we were eating a pepperoni pizza . And we couldn’t quite finish it, there were two slices left. And Paul proceeded to eat them.

At which point I believe Matty says, “I thought you were a vegetarian.”

Paul replies, “I am.”

Matty: “Those are pepperonis on that pizza. Which is meat.”

Paul: “Yes, I know. But because this pizza would otherwise go uneaten, the resources that went into the pig, which should otherwise have more rightfully gone into vegetables for economic and moral reasons, are now going to be wasted, so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be eaten, in this case. So it’s fair game.”

To which I responded, “good luck keeping that system going.”

Which of course, Paul did not.

Paul was normal.

Have any of you borne witness to any of his bedrooms? Paul’s messiness was epic, and profound. It reached its zenith in New Haven, unchecked by anyone (unchecked by mom, who was 3000 miles away), and definitely unchecked by Lucy, who decided, correctly, that it was not her problem.

If you entered Paul’s bedroom, you could not be sure that there was a floor. So covered with junk was what could possibly be but not definitely known to be, the floor, that it wasn’t clear that the bottom surface of the room was carpet, hardwood, or a small body of water, on which a mat of clothes, books, and crumpled up photocopies, floated. If you were to step into the room, would your foot hit something firm, floor-like? Or plunge into a swamp of pants, colorful and certainly unclean socks, camping stoves, and dog-eared copies of Being and Time? Really you couldn’t know.

I’m not exaggerating by the way. In a room of Paul’s, the floor was unseen. As if Paul was trying to make a point about faith. Like God, you cannot see the floor, but you must have faith that, Yea, it is there. Its rod and staff will comfort you.

Paul was normal.

My mom said something to us last week, amid all the tributes to Paul coming from across the world. I think mom, seeing something not quite present in those tributes, said, “You boys knew how to have fun.”

So. Paul was normal. But he was also exceptional.

We stand with Paul, alongside him, near him, because he was normal: flawed, real, human, mortal, specific. We stand in awe of him because he was exceptional: brilliant, relentless, a master of his own – our own – mortality.

But Paul was not merely exceptional. He was far better than that. And he is my – our – brother.

How to sell your startup when your company (almost but not quite) nailed it

THE POINT OF THIS POST Acquisitions are so secretive and there is so much B.S. surrounding them publicly. I hope sharing specific details (mixed with some advice) will be interesting reading to all you entrepreneurs out there.

FAIR WARNING This is a meandering tour that jumps around, skips big chunks, circles back, dives forward. I decided it was better to put the story down and get it out than it was to perfect it. A cop-out approach to writing? Almost certainly.

But done > not done.

Hey, guess what, we (Dave Merrill and I) sold our (first) startup, Sifteo! First off, I am thrilled to be joining our acquirer, 3DRobotics – we’re going to help make flying robots. This is a childhood dream (ROBOTS), and a perfect home for our company’s assets and team. I can’t say much about what we are doing with our technology or what we are working on, but it should be fun.

I’ll focus on our own acquisition scenario, which is something like this: your company accomplished a lot, made millions of dollars, but you ultimately determined the company’s current path was not going to get you to the Big Time. You saw the wall speeding toward you (or is that you speeding toward the wall?). So you hit the reset button, cut back, and starting work on the next thing with the remaining cash.

I’ve heard the most common outcome for startups is outright failure, closing the doors: 9 out of 10. Of the last 1? I guess 0.2 out of 10 truly kick ass. Sifteo, I suppose, falls into the last 0.8 out of 10.

This story begins near the end.

Sifteo cubes, generation 2

Our story begins last summer, in 2013. We had failed to raise a needed round of cash, and the cost of running our business was skyrocketing. We had built and shipped two generations of Sifteo cubes, a game system made up of intelligent little blocks. But we radically underestimated the cost of game production. Hardware is expensive for sure, but as a percentage of our expenses, games production was far and away the biggest ticket item.

More important, we just weren’t selling enough product. Why? Well, while we were undoubtedly a critical success (loved by the press, the industry, and education-minded folks), Sifteo cubes weren’t making our customers happy enough! Our NPS scores were off target.

(Some other time I’ll break down exactly why we failed to really establish a growing customer base, but that’s for another post. That fact has a lot to do with the challenge we faced raising a round.)


A slide from our fundraising try. Seems like it should have worked, right? But it didn't.

A slide from our fundraising try. Seems like it should have worked, right? But it didn’t.

Bottom line was: we had to do something new, or go out of business.

When to sell? If you have less than six months of cash, you are in bad shape.

As we made the call to reset in the summer of 2013, Dave and I and the board set a clock for ourselves – six months to be locked and loaded on the new thing, and about nine to launch it (in our case, fire up a crowdfunding campaign for a new hardware product). We’d have four to five months of runway after that, minimum – and likely longer – since we would have gotten revenue in the door at launch. Our investors were also super supportive so this felt like a reasonable strategy – they’d likely re-up if things were going well.

This timeline wasn’t set in stone, but we put this expectation on ourselves. If we weren’t hitting our timeline, we’d have to start shopping ourselves around, at about the six month mark. We just wouldn’t have enough cash to launch a new product by that point.

Sounds pretty basic, and it is. And as you’ll see, even in theoretically ideal circumstances, a sale will take six months.

Companies are bought, not sold.

December – the six month mark – rolled around, and if we were following our plan to the letter – it’d be time to start shopping the company around. Ugh. We were actively working on new product ideas and were not mentally ready to begin the shopping process.

But wouldn’t you know: in late November, a friend from corp dev at HOT_SF_COMPANY sent us a note.

Hey Dave,

How are you?  Just reaching out about Sifteo – some folks over here noticed what you’re doing and were impressed – would love to catch up if you have a chance this week – lemme know man!


(Dave is Sifteo’s co-founder.)

Wow! Good timing. Off to the races.

Frankly, I’m not sure exactly how we would have proceeded without inbound interest.

If you have to shop your company around proactively, that seems … not good. Chalk it up to our reptile brains, but people (buyers) are interested in things that seem scarce – and if you are shopping yourself, you are by definition not scarce.

Tangent #1: Suggestions on making acquirers come to you.

First, make your company interesting to the outside world, especially to potential buyers, even if you are not “killing it” (even in fact if you are getting killed by it) – be out there in your relevant tech community at events, be good to people and build your reputation the right way, have a cool product that gets noticed in the press. Do this from day 1 of your company.

Second, revamp your site once you’ve made the decision that you might want to sell. You could focus on team, but if you don’t want to – still just generally reboot the site. This is a signal that you are alive and up to something, but perhaps are open to an offer. A clearly stale site is no bueno. And by the way, stale sites are really obvious. A stale site means you could be easy pickings, or more likely, soon to be in the deadpool. Don’t send that signal.

Third, go to a fancy college such that the corp dev guys at Big Co’s were in your freshman dorm.

I’m unfortunately not joking about that last point. A corp dev person’s job is to essentially know people from college.

There is no going back.

So, what did we do with that email? We decided to follow up with it, coyly as we could.

Once you take this meeting, there is no going back. Your board will know immediately you want to sell if you even talk about taking the meeting. By the way, definitely let them know you’d like to take the meeting before you take it. A good board will make you admit this to yourself – that you are ready to sell. Ours did.

Tangent #2: Building for an exit from day 1 – or not.

About being interesting to the outside world: some entrepreneurs have a clear acquisition path from day 1 – they have a list of possible acquirers on day 1, and nurture those relationships (without looking too open to an acquisition) early on.

We did not do this. Actually, we did the opposite. So this is a warning, I suppose.

At Sifteo, we built some world-class technology in virtualization, sensing and RF protocols as well as game IP’s. But our product just didn’t seem like part of a specific sector of the tech industry; Sifteo cubes seemed like a toy to most. And we didn’t have deep integrations into ecosystems like iOS or Android, which made us even less relevant to the main trends in technology.

Here’s the thing: some industries are used to buying startups, and some are not. The toy industry big guys – Hasbro, Mattel, Leapfrog – rarely buy companies.  Licensing, sure. Buying? Rare.

On the other hand, companies in the Valley are used to building value through acquisitions.  They have departments of people devoted to this (corporate development).

At Sifteo, whenever we’d make our so-called acquisition list, the toy companies would be up there – then crossed off since we learned that they just don’t do acquisitions. Nintendo would be on the list, but again, they just don’t do acquisitions. So we’d end up with a list of companies that, while believable, didn’t feel super credible.

Ultimately, the #1 goal is to build a product that sells. Do that and good things will come. But if you don’t quite accomplish that, or even if you do and you are not relevant to companies that know how to acquire startups, guess what? You might not get acquired.

We avoided this “no acquirers” scenario because our accomplishments in consumer electronics spoke volumes by themselves, even if our specific product didn’t feel like a value-add to most Silicon Valley companies. An indirect path to be sure.

Figure out which specific human is interested in buying you. If it’s not a powerful exec at the company, the deal probably won’t work.

Back to the story: At our first meeting with HOT_SF_COMPANY in December, we did not try to sell. We just talked about what we were up to and determined that a VP at the company was the person driving it all. We talked with him for a while – maybe just 10 minutes – and hit it off. That was good. The first 50 minutes were spent talking to corp dev person.

Some thoughts. Beware of deals led by corp dev. They don’t really have the authority to make a deal, they just manage the process.

There is no fair market value for your company. Your price is based on your second highest bidder. Period.

After that first meeting, we felt good. Really good! We were wanted!

We then went into “do this the right way” mode – rekindling earlier interested acquirers, talking to the board about what’s out there, making a spreadsheet to track our progress.

Around this time I started to talk to entrepreneur friends about how to price the company. There are a TON of ways to do this that are really sensible and fair – you can work out your NPV based on what you think the acquirer needs you for, you can talk to your corp dev buddies about what the market will bear for your type of deal, but ultimately: your price goes up if you have two or more bidders.

If you have one, your price will settle around $0.

It’s worth it to build up a case for how to value your company. It’s wise to assess what the market is doing. But I quit focusing a lot of energy on this when a friend told me, loud and clear, the above sentence – there is no fair market value for your company.

Even if you have inbound interest, you will have to shop yourself a little…

So, while we got some inbound interest, we DID have to go into a sorta/kinda sell mode: reminding folks who were interested in us that hey – we were now open to an acquisition.

This started after that first December meeting.

To short-circuit the story a little bit: between a lot of meetings here and there and some awkward emails, guess what? Only one went anywhere – but that anywhere is our new home, 3DRobotics!

We had a great relationship with 3DR already and with Chris Anderson, its CEO, since we ran into each other at the same events, had the same investors, and so on. Most importantly, the fit was super obvious.

..and trust your gut.

So: don’t be afraid to go through the process, but trust your gut if you think the deal is not happening. You’re probably right, and hell, you might keep your dignity intact.

I’ll be specific. We got hooked up with ENORMOUS_COMPANY because we are an acquaintance with a founder who sold his company, which was a HOT_STARTUP, to ENORMOUS_COMPANY. The deal was huuuuuge so he had a lot of pull in the ENORMOUS_COMPANY.

But, you know – he was just an acquaintance. And that strategic fit was so-so.

Totally enough to set up meetings with corp dev and some key people in the company, but it just didn’t feel right. Specifically, ENORMOUS_COMPANY was not willing to do even very small things to move the deal forward. We wanted some indication of price based on the information we had provided, but they really wanted to meet the team before saying anything. Not unreasonable, of course, but cluing your team into the fact that an acquisition is afoot is a big deal. See below.

Well, so would they come up to our office in San Francisco to meet the team, or would they prefer we send everyone to their HQ?

From me:

OK, understood. Well, I don’t want this to be a deal breaker [not allowing ENORMOUS_COMPANY to meet our team before they could provide guidance on price] – so we’re cool to have some folks meet our team. I think it would be most efficient to have a few folks over so you can meet everyone at once. Plus, our space is fun and reflects our values too; might be good for you all to see.

What do you think? I’ll give you a ring in a sec to discuss synchronously.


From them:

Hi there – it’s a great idea, but could we have the team all come down to ENORMOUS_COMPANY HQ?  It sounds like it might be best to have multiple folks meet them and it’s harder to cart those folks up to SF.  

That note to me says: they don’t care that much about this deal.

No bad actors here at all, all on the level! But the signal was clear enough. I put that conversation in the icebox right then. The above was in the March timeframe.

Even if you really really believe in transparency (I do), be careful with sharing the news.

So, Dave and I got pretty focused on the sale in December/January. This requires a ton of actual work, meetings, and a lot of plain old psychic energy. The actual work consists of building up decks that represent what you do, your IP, team bios and more. You’ll tweak them a lot. You’ll go to lots of meetings. Lots of them.

I really wanted to clue our team in early, but I’m glad we didn’t. There is SO SO much uncertainty, and so many ups and downs to the process, that it is really too much to handle.

Your team will also completely grind to a halt on product development once this news is shared. Finally, they will start looking at other opportunities once the cat is out of the bag.

Your team, if it is any good, it is getting recruited by Google, Apple and others. Keep up the morale.

Guess what: your team is already getting heavily recruited, since they are hopefully all-stars, no matter what. And they may have started looking around after you reset: that’s only natural. If you do the reset well, you can minimize this, but realize that if your team is good, they are getting legitimate recruiting pings from fantastic companies at least once a week. At least. So destabilizing information should be guarded.

And this is such a matter of timing. Because letting folks in on the news that an acquisition is afoot is energizing too! We decided to wait til we got a real Letter of Intent (LOI) before we spilled the beans.

It ain’t over til the fat lady sings.

…but actually we didn’t wait that long. HOT_SF_STARTUP was willing to discuss numbers with us and our board verbally. But to put a number on a piece of paper, they had to meet the team.

We pushed on this, and finally relented. It was a reasonable request. We were pretty damn sure that it was a done deal at that point anyway, because our team is better than Dave and I are, frankly, and I knew the interviews would go well. This all kicked off in March.

Product development ground to a halt. People got excited. And freaked out.

We kept everyone apprised as best as we could, talking to each individually very often. We got feedback on what each individual wanted. A sale wouldn’t make sense if our team didn’t want it to happen, period. This was not a sell-your-team-on-the-acquisition: it has to be an actual dialog.

The interviews went great.

Meanwhile, we were continuing to talk to 3DR. That was going well too. So we had two opportunities.

And man: it was such a struggle to decide which way to go, on behalf of our investors, our team, and ourselves. Both opportunities were exciting — though to cut to the chase, 3DR both made the most financial sense and the product space is just so awesome.

Still, we didn’t know enough about what HOT_SF_STARTUP was actually offering. So we had to get those interviews done. I said they went great, right?

Like I said, it ain’t over til the fat lady sings.

How did those interviews at HOT_SF_STARTUP go, again?

Actually – they went weird. The feedback from HOT_SF_STARTUP was that they didn’t actually want everyone on our team – and they then dropped the deal price considerably. That didn’t really square with me, because they wanted all the technical talent – and that, sad to say, determines the price in an acqui-hire situation, which is what the deal was turning out to be for HOT_SF_STARTUP.

I remember the call well, with Dave and I sitting in one of our conference rooms around the Polycom and getting the news. This was April, after many, many interviews, preceded by many, many private meetings with us, HOT_SF_STARTUP, and our board.

I was confused. But accepting. You get a feel for knowing when people are open to convincing, and when they have made up their mind. These folks had made up their mind.

I still don’t know exactly what was going on there, to be honest. My hunch is that something internal was going on at the company that either made us less relevant, made our business sponsor less able to push through the deal, or … who knows. Maybe, per Occam’s razor, only some of us were a fit for real. And they really didn’t calculate deal value based on technical talent.

Running up to that call, we had to keep telling our team that yes, the deal is coming together, don’t worry – and we had to hide the identity of 3DR! The team knew we had multiple suitors. But we decided we couldn’t have everyone voting on which company they wanted to join. We needed to serialize it.

Also meanwhile: more than one person on our team was, in fact, taking that interview at BIG_CO – and getting offers.

Getting that news – that one of your people is considering leaving and has a great offer, all while you are trying to execute a sale – is truly terrible. However, turns out no one took those offers (well, one of our folks did in the very final few days before the deal closed, which ended up being OK).

It’s a testament to how cohesive our team is that they wanted to see a deal through and stick together instead of taking those offers. We’re lucky that way. I suppose we can give ourselves as founders some credit for being as open as possible with our folks throughout the process. And for trying look out for everyone’s interests before ours. I recommend that approach.

You’re in control. Sort of. 

So, HOT_SF_STARTUP was looking surprisingly dismal. This was a blessing in disguise, since it allowed us to get serious with 3D Robotics and focus fully on that.

In a deal situation, it’s always important to remember you are in control. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want. BATNAs and all that right?

Around this April timeframe, Dave and I recognized that we had built a situation in which we were in fact in control: if not HOT_SF_STARTUP, then 3D Robotics. If not 3D Robotics, then HOT_SF_STARTUP.

Now if both of them got cold feet … well. Luckily that didn’t happen.

Everything takes longer.

As it became clear that 3D Robotics was the right home for us, we got excited. We share some investors. We had a good relationship. The transaction was not going to be super complex. Should be done in two weeks.

Except, not. It took about six weeks from LOI to close. I’m still debugging why this happened, given the existing relationships and alignments. I think some of it was inexperience. I think some of it was not really staying on top of the lawyers.

But wouldn’t you know it – about six months after that initial email, our deal was closed.

Good thing we had enough cash to get there.

The road beckons!

I glossed over and outright omitted so many details and emotional ups and downs from our story. It really would take a book to get it all down, and I think that book might actually be interesting reading. This post was a meandering hopscotch through the process (can you have a meandering hopscotch? This blogpost may be the first ever) – but I hope that, instead of focusing on the emotional nature of the founder’s journey – often wrote about, and very well by others – a tour through some details with a few observations thrown in may prove interesting reading.

Dave and I are thrilled that we navigated our way through this process to such a happy result. We know it had much more to do with our team and its accomplishments than it had to do with us. We now have new email addresses, but we feel our entrepreneurial journey continues, now as part of a new, growing company – the road beckons.

The Myth of the Uniform Distribution

Distributions are a useful way to reason about all kinds of things.

Here’s a familiar one, the normal distribution, or “the bell curve.”

normal sketch

A bell curve basically says that most of the data points are bunched up around some midpoint. So in a population of men, say, most of them will be 5’9″ or thereabouts, with few really tall and few really short guys. So in my above napkin sketch, the axis would have a value of 5’9″ right under the peak of the curve.

Here’s another one, the uniform distribution.

uniform sketch

This says that the data points are distributed equally. Tossing a die is a good example – any possible outcome (1 through 6) is equally likely to occur. In the above distribution, imagine we have a six sided die. The axis would be 1 right where the curve starts on the left, and 6 where the curve ends on the right*.

These distributions make intuitive sense, they seem to describe a lot of stuff we observe in the world.

But not everything is distributed like a bell curve, or a uniform curve. In fact, a lot of people think that everything is either normal or uniform, but this is not true!

You’ve probably seen Pareto, or “long-tail” curves. But I’d like to focus on multi-modal, “lumpy” distributions. Like this:

multimodal sketch

That is, there are bunches of data gathered around a point and then lots of nothing in between them.

Why is this concept important? Because a lot of patterns in life are multi-modal, and if you mistake them for a uniform (or normal), you can make bad decisions. And the thing is, it is really tempting to make this mistake.

Let’s start with a basic example. Say you are trying to price a product, and you are thinking about a price between $79 and $99. Imagine we populate a curve to get at this price sensitivity question. Each potential buyer has a max price they will pay, and we mark them down on the x-axis of a distribution, where x is price. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you’ll get a lump at $79, and a lump at $99. That means there is NO POINT in pricing your product anything in between these two price points.  In other words, demand curves are not smooth, but lumpy.

(Tangential entrepreneur thought: people spend WAY too much time thinking about pricing, as opposed to just focusing on building the best product. In most new-ish markets, people will pay more for the best – price sensitivity is totally besides the point.)

A more interesting example. Say you are trying to hire a software developer, and you imagine talent level as a distribution among a group of professionals. I believe this distribution is neither uniform nor normal – it’s multimodal. (I can’t prove this, but my experience tells me this is true.) That is, there are a set of super amazing excellent people, and then a bunch of competent people, and then there are terrible people, and well, nothing in between these groups. There is no “well, she’s almost amazing, just missing X,Y …” person. The person is either amazing, or competent. Nothing in between. So how does this change your hiring practices?

It’s easy to make bad compromises if you view a pattern as uniform or normal when it’s not. In fact, it’s better, in my view, to mistake patterns as modal than to mistake them as uniform.

*I’m mixing up continuous with discrete random variables here with the example of a discrete die and a continuous looking graph, but that affect  the logic of the overall argument. IANAS(tatistician).

The Empathic Lens vs. The Mechanistic Lens: Thinking about Customers

Over the years through myriad conversations with different entrepreneurs, I’ve encountered two distinct attitudes toward customers. I call these the empathic lens and the mechanistic lens.

Wearing the empathic lens, the entrepreneur imagines his customers’ daily life, feels their pain, and tirelessly works to correct that pain. He talks to customers constantly, and tries to know them at a deep level. His decisions are guided by his instincts and those customer interactions, and he tends to develop strategies based on what he feels is right for his customer. Many founding just-so stories are based around the empathic lens; the apotheosis of these is the story of the founder building something to correct his own deeply felt problem. Mike Woods’ founding of Leapfrog is said to be one of these stories – his child had a hard time learning and he could not find one single product that could help his son. So he built one.

Wearing the mechanical lens, the entrepreneur sees behavioral patterns across populations – trends, predilections, and numbers that describe behavior in equations or quasi-equations. He identifies opportunities to tweak these patterns or otherwise make them more efficient via a process or product not yet in place. Decisions are driven by data and users are understood according to models. The language of funnels, conversions, DAU’s issue from the mechanical lens.

One lens is not better than the other, and one won’t lead to a better company necessarily. Indeed they are both correct descriptions of reality. 

Think about a group of people bustling down a city sidewalk. Each person can be looked at empathically – they are headed where they are headed, in a rush or not, talking to another person or not, based on their goals and desires for that day and the context of their life. You can understand each person, their interactions, and the group by putting yourself in their shoes.

On the other hand, you could model them as particles described with a few set of rules and properties (heading, velocity, simple avoidance algorithms). You’d also have an accurate model of these people in terms of understanding and capturing their behavior.

My hunch is that certain types of startups favor certain mentalities. My hardware startup friends tend to be pretty empathic, and my mobile consumer friends are pretty mechanical. The best game startup people I know wear both lenses, though the leadership veers mechanical for mobile and empathic for AAA console games.

I’d bet the very best entrepreneurs effortlessly switch lenses depending on context, and favor neither. I’ve met a few of entrepreneurs like this, and I admire them most.

Musings on the family village


I’ve been thinking about how technology mediates us and our communication; on the condition of modern life with regard to this mediation; on the (fictional?) alternative of a pre-digital village.

The family village is a place where everyone knows one another. It’s not too big. It’s unhurried.

People work hard. But they’re not distracted. They don’t have ever-growing task lists. They don’t ever worry about “scheduling” – they know what they have to do, and what they want to do, and they know there’s a time and a place for all these things.

Things go more slowly. Is it less efficient than modern life? Maybe. But maybe – since there’s less to do – more things get done. People don’t know what the phrase “drop the ball” means. They feel overwhelmed when someone in the family has poor health, or they can’t put enough food on the table – but never because “their day was crazy.”

They socialize a lot. They do so over meals. They do so as the walk to and fro on the paths in the village*. They share a lot.

There’s not a lot of privacy, though people have spots where they steal away to get away from the rest of the village when they need to.

They don’t understand the concept of a nuclear family. Children are raised by all the adults. Grandparents don’t miss their grandkids, since they live in the same house, or down the street.

They don’t have that much of what we would call choice – they mostly do what their parents did, they mostly stay where they’re from, they mostly eat what’s cooked, they mostly listen to music that happens to playing**.

They talk mostly in-person. They love to get interrupted – by people.

They would hate:

  • Twitter. What is all this stuff? Does it ever end? Are these people saying these things? Who are these people?
  • Email. Stop giving me stuff to do. I don’t like lists, but if I have to use one, I’ll write it myself. And if you want to talk, just come over sometime.
  • Computers as they are today. There’s too much stuff in there!
  • Commuting. I might go far away for work, but I go for months, then come home. I don’t go back and forth an hour each day. If I really have to, I walk or bike, usually with someone. I don’t understand traffic.

A family village is:

  • slow
  • calm
  • personal
  • undistracted
  • warm

Family villages are based in reality, but they’re also a fantasy; a fantasy of a time that maybe never was. They seem to be wrapped up in the past, in nostalgia.

Are the future trend lines of technology and culture destined to extinguish this (mythical) past? Or will the trend line change, and move culture to a calmer place?

I’m not sure that the increasing ubiquity and speed of computation necessitates an ever more distracted, faster, competitive, harried, cluttered existence. It has led that way so far. The values of choice and instantaneity and individualization seem to lead to this distracted world.

We are dealing with that distraction by avoiding synchronous communication in favor of asynchronous, short messages: but those messages don’t really solve the distraction issue, and they certainly don’t capture the magic of a casual family village chat.

Calming ourselves may be more about removing than it is about adding or augmenting. However, it’s not easy for companies to profit through depriving their customers of a service or product. A lockbox for your phone probably won’t see widespread adoption. Replacements work better – Whole Foods replaces McDonalds. Board games replace single player video games.

We’re still at the early edge of sensors, wireless and mobile computing. I believe thoughtful design and the hardware revolution hold the promise of capturing some of the magic of the family village.

…what might these products and services look like? Here’s a grab bag of unbaked ideas:

  • face to face communication. simpler video chat: can we make this less invasive, less difficult, less time consuming – more like “stopping in?”
  • raising kids. could a social “baby monitor” allow my family pay a casual visit to my child? Can it be a window into our house? Can it make life less nuclear?
  • true face to face. Make it easier to be in person with faster, cheaper, easier travel. C’mon Hyperloop!
*this specifically reminds me of college life, which in some ways approximates village life.
**this may seem distasteful, but it feels like an accurate portrayal of the village.

The Dynamics of Power: A dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter

Last night my mother-in-law Mary L. babysat my two year old daughter Eve while my wife and I went out to dinner. What follows is a dialogue, written by Mary (known to Eve as “Mare Mare”), left on the kitchen counter. It may veer from non-fiction to fiction in ways I can’t tell. Here for your reading pleasure.

The dialogue begins with Eve already in bed, and Mary watching TV in the living room.

EK = Eve Kalanithi, my daughter

MM = Mare Mare, my mother-in-law

Grandmother Dialog, Page 1

Grandmother dialog, Page 2


My mother-in-law is awesome

Hardware Startup Basics

In the past year, Dave and I have been asked for tips from lots of hardware entrepreneurs, just starting out. No one is ever an expert, but we now have some real experience in this domain and love to share our successes, failures, and the key takeaways those experiences provide.

Marc Barros, an awesome guy and founder of camera company Contour, has been organizing Hardware Workshops to share  (sometimes hard-fought) knowledge on what it’s like – and what it takes – to run a hardware startup company. He asked Dave and I to talk about some basic numbers for a hardware company – how much to charge for your product, how to pay a factory, and so forth.

The presentation went well so we decided to share the slides publicly. Hope you find it useful. Questions and comments always welcome.

Post Mortems

Sifteo is an interesting company: we combine a game studio, a hardware development and software development group along with a retail focused sales and marketing team. Add to that an underpinning of startupness. What you get is an interesting amalgamation of cultures and working styles.

One thing I love from game development culture is the concept of the postmortem. I don’t think this is that common among startups generally, but it’s excellent. It’s a simple idea. The development team gets together after a launch and discusses openly two things: WHAT WENT RIGHT and WHAT WENT WRONG.

The benefits are:

learning. start-ups move fast and it’s easy to keep cranking without actually sitting back and understanding what is going on.

criticism. the culture around post-mortems openly airs critiques that many people don’t feel comfortable giving outside this safe zone. You hope everyone can be direct with one another, but that’s not a trait we all have. The postmortem provides this space, and it doesn’t take a genius facilitator to keep the discussion away from finger-pointing.

These post-mortems often take the form of interviews or articles for bigger projects. Game Developer Magazine features post-mortems each issue, generally written by the key developer or designer of a given game.

This practice seems super obvious to one culture but (from what I can see) is rare in others.