Neighborhood Garden Center (ages 14-16) – Manually loaded bags of various landscaping materials (mulch, topsoil, and stones) from palettes into customer vehicles during spring and summer months on the weekends. During winter, did the same for bags of rock salt, bails of firewood, and other various wintertime goods.

McDonalds (ages 16-18) – Worked the grill on nights and weekends during the school year, and nearly full-time over the summer. Despite the horrible hours, enjoyed the opening shift of the store (5:00 am through 1:00 pm) and made a slightly higher wages for the inconvenience.

NYU Bobst Library (ages 18-21) – A work-study job during the school year, I was part of a team that worked in the basement of the building, scanning and cataloguing various periodicals that had been ordered by the university. Also included matching periodical invoices to publications sent our way, and trying to figure out if we ever received the issues we were being billed for.

NJ Transit (ages 18-21) – I spent the summers of my college years working behind bulletproof glass and selling bus tickets to commuters and vacationers alike traveling to and from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. I worked for one summer in the Atlantic City Bus Terminal and two in the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Center City Philadelphia.



Last weekend, Forbes treated us to an excerpt from Dan Lyons’ upcoming book entitled “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” which paints a not-so-glowing portrait of his time at marketing automation startup Hubspot.

Lyons isn’t the first journalist to chronicle his time at a fast-growing tech company. The canonical example is probably Michael Wolff’s “Burn Rate,” which detailed the author’s attempt at running a startup and raising venture capital during the dotcom boom, but there have been others over the years.

And I doubt Lyons will be the last — no doubt we’ll get other inside accounts of companies gone bust appearing on digital bookshelves if winter ever comes and the financial markets start to get really ugly.

Lyons’ account of Hubspot is funny at points, but the thing that stood out to me was how earnestly surprised he seemed to be about Hubspot’s attempts at building a sustainable culture, and well, how cynical he was about the whole thing. And for someone who supposedly had covered the tech industry for more than a decade, it appears to me that Lyons was pretty ill-informed about what startups look like on the inside.

But maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation in which I talked about some of the things I wish I had known about investing before joining 500 Startups. The heading for one of the slides was simply “Startups Are Fucked Up,” something I’ve learned very quickly over the past several months.

If you already work at a startup, you probably already know this. But for someone on the outside, the extent to which things are broken at startups most of the time might be cause for alarm.

That’s probably true for many who cover the industry, but it’s not necessarily their fault. In a world in which most writers only hear about what’s going well at startups — the most recent fundraise, the big new customer or partner, the huge number of users they’ve accumulated — there’s little perspective into how much of an unmitigated disaster most young companies are.

The whole thing was pretty well illustrated in a tweet shared by one of my colleagues a few weeks ago:

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.07.11 PM

My guess is that if you put any reporter in ANY startup for a year, he or she would be able to write a tell-all book. That doesn’t mean those companies are bad… Just that their problems are the ones people would actually be aware of.

Diversity, Investing

Company Culture And Diversity Debt

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Berlin, where I got to meet a ton of great entrepreneurs, talk about my early experiences in venture capital, and answer questions about what 500 Startups looks for in startups and founders we back. While there I also sat on a panel to discuss how the tech industry can address the diversity issue it currently faces.*

By now, most in the industry are familiar with the many diversity reports that tech companies — big and small, public and private — have released and the efforts that they’re now making to increase the number of woman and minorities among their ranks. Some companies have set hiring targets for non-white, non-male employees, while others have hired executives to tackle the issues inherent in acquiring and retaining underrepresented talent.

While these are valiant efforts, it strikes me that many of these companies are seeking to reverse a trend that they inadvertently set into motion, and could have been avoided if they had been more thoughtful in the earliest stages of their formation.

Most founders are familiar with the idea of “technical debt,” which accrues when they delay implementation of sound technical design or processes in the interest of getting a product or project done more quickly.

The tradeoff between a quick go-to market plan and a weak underlying codebase can mean massive refactoring or re-investment later in a startup’s life. Not surprisingly, the longer it takes a company to address these issues, the more difficult (and more expensive) it becomes to do so.

But few think about the issue of what I’d like to call “diversity debt.” That is, the interest that accrues when a company puts off implementing hiring policies that will ensure diversity in the type of people that work for it. And just like technical debt, the longer that a company takes to address the issue, the more difficult it is to do so.

As a venture partner at 500 Startups, I am fortunate that diversity was built into the DNA of the company. Our managing partners come from different cultures and backgrounds and speak a variety of languages. That top-down approach has trickled down through the rest of the organization, where 1/3 of our investment partners are women and fewer than half are white.

But I realize our situation is rare. It’s not uncommon for a founding team to have common interests and common backgrounds, which often leads to the first one to five employees within a startup to look, think, and act the same. At that stage in a company’s development, everyone is working to solve problems together, and this common bond can actually mean increased productivity.

As a team grows, however, and layers of complexity are added to a company’s organizational structure, it becomes increasingly important to add people with different skill sets and specialties to handle individual tasks. At the same time, I would argue that it also becomes more important to add people from different backgrounds and different points of view.

There are studies which show that more diverse workforce environments drive creativity and problem-solving, lower the costs of attracting and retaining talent, and ultimately increase productivity and innovation. But at the earliest stages, few companies are thinking about the long-term effects of diversity. They’re just looking to get shit done.

When hiring their first five to 10 employees, some founders will say that they’re just looking for the best talent, regardless of what a person looks like or where they came from.* But if you are a founder who isn’t thinking about how the makeup of your current team will affect your future team, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Company culture is easy to build at the early stages of a company’s life, but difficult to change once it’s set. On that panel a few days ago, Girls In Tech founder Adriana Gascoigne talked about how at one of her former jobs, she was the only woman on a team of more than 30. She recounted how the company had a bro-y culture, how the guys around her drank beer and tossed footballs around the office.

In short, it wasn’t a comfortable experience for her to be the only woman there, and you can imagine that it would be equally difficult for a company like that to attract other talented women to the team. In fact, the longer a homogenous company culture exists, the less likely it will be that someone from outside that particular demographic group will be willing to join.

Attracting a diverse talent pool isn’t easy, in part because from a pure numbers standpoint, there isn’t as much of it. Especially in STEM fields, it’s been well-documented that women and people of color are not as well-represented as their white male counterparts.

Yes, it will likely mean more work than just searching through candidates that come through applications from job listings. It will probably mean going to events or partnering with organizations that less-represented people in tech. It might mean

The good news is that attracting diverse talent becomes easier the more you do it. By actively hiring people from different backgrounds and giving them opportunities to advance, companies send a signal to other potential applicants. Given a choice between job opportunities, those applicants are more likely to join the company where there are other people with diverse backgrounds.

Changing company culture isn’t just about hiring, though. It’s also about offering opportunities for growth and promotion to a diverse set of employees already on team.

So founders, if you haven’t hired someone who doesn’t look, think, or act like you yet, ask yourselves why or why not. If you don’t have a women or a person of color on your team yet, ask yourselves why or why not. If you have reached the point where you have devised a company org chart but haven’t yet promoted a women or person of color into a management position, ask yourself why or why not.

And if any (or all) of those situations apply to you, do something to change it.

It will be much easier to do so with your next hire than 10 hires later, and infinitely easier than 100 hires later.

* I realize that being a straight, white man on a panel about diversity is by itself a little ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have important things to say!
** The implicit subtext here is that it’s too difficult to find extremely talented engineers or developers from diverse backgrounds, which I would say is a totally bullshit argument, if not potentially racist or sexist.

Journalism, Twitter

The Scoop That Wasn’t

A few days ago, Bloomberg reported on the true identity of Startup L. Jackson, one of Twitter’s most beloved pseudonymous accounts.

While I’ve known that Parker Thompson was the guy behind the account for a while now, there was a period of time back when I was a reporter in which I didn’t know that fact… and in which I was doggedly trying to figure out exactly who was tweeting such brilliant stuff.

Anyway, the result was me spending about three weeks working on a story that never got published — and thankfully so, since I ended up being wrong about who I speculated was behind the account.

Looking back on that post, which I subsequently put up on Medium, I’m reminded of how imperfect the practice of journalism can be. A lot of times as a reporter you will hear a bit of scuttlebutt and then spend a lot of time just trying to confirm what you think to be true.

In this case, it was a piece of factual information — the name of a person — which can be pretty easy to confirm or deny. The fact that I couldn’t get someone to confirm the name of the guy behind Startup L. Jackson made it easy not to run with the story.

But then a lot of times the things you hear will be more nuanced — say, Company X is raising a big round of funding, or Company Y is having serious issues — in which it’s more difficult to get to the truth of the matter. At those times, it’s easy to get caught up in the opinions of people, many of whom will have an agenda.

Of course, it’s the journalist’s job to try to distill all of these pieces of information and report on what they believe to be the truth. But it’s an imperfect art, to be sure.

As a side note, this is something my former TechCrunch colleague Alex Wilhelm and I talked about on the podcast we’ve been working on over the past few months. Give a listen if you’re at all interested.


WiFi That Works!

I have spent the last two years plagued by poor WiFi.

That fact is due as much to the construction of the apartment I live in as anything else — I live in what some would consider a ‘railroad’ style building, which includes one long hallway from back to front, with doors to various bedrooms and bathrooms lining that path.

Over the course of the last few years, my girlfriend and I have tried numerous things to make sure WiFi was available in both ends of the apartment. At one point we ran ethernet cable from one end of the apartment to the other end, setting up routers at each.

But most recently, we had been using a single, over-priced router positioned in the center of the apartment. The end result from that setup was merely that our wireless internet spanned about 80 percent of the house, with little to no connectivity in the front or rear of the apartment.

That was the case until I finally received my Eero. When I first heard about what Eero planned — to create a wireless routing system that essentially created a mesh network using multiple WiFi access points throughout a home — I was intrigued, and almost immediately pre-ordered a set.

And while the wait was much longer than I expected or hoped (the original target ship date was fall 2015, but pre-order units didn’t get sent out until last month), I can honestly say that the wait has been worth it. After installing Eero base stations in the center of the house, as well as in room on either end, our household can finally get usable wireless Internet throughout — something that we had previously thought impossible.

More important that just access, though, is speed and reliability: in the weeks leading up to receiving my Eero unit, there were multiple evenings in which Netflix just wouldn’t load, presumably because one of my roommates was also using some sort of high-bandwidth application. That doesn’t happen anymore, thank God.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I wish my Eero three-pack had come sooner. It felt like forever while I waited as the pre-order ship date slipped from last fall to early 2016. But it was clearly worth the wait, as I can finally get WiFi connectivity anywhere in my apartment. Finally.


Back To The Future

I was 23 years old the first time I visited Japan. It also happened to be the first time I had traveled outside of the US, and as a result I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a pretty fascinating place, a country of strange customs, great food, and technology that blew me away.

Those were the early 2000s, and back then the Japanese were light-years ahead of the U.S. in computing — particularly in mobile and portable devices. This is probably what struck me the most as I wandered around Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood for the first time.

For a tech geek like me, visiting Akihabara was like making a pilgrimage to some sort of hardware Mecca. There, in one spot, you could find any number of electronics that wouldn’t make their way to my part of the world for years, if at all. I was surrounded by Sony laptops that were impossibly small for the hardware specs they were touting, but the difference in mobile technology was truly astounding.

While people in the U.S. were stuck using monochromatic Motorola flip phones, the Japanese took advantage of devices with large, full-color displays. And five years before an iPhone connected to its first 3G network, Japanese consumers had access to streaming video and other “advanced” communications services.

I remember thinking at the time that I was taking a peek into the future.

Since then, I’ve taken a few trips back to Japan, but I hadn’t been there since the launch of the iPhone. I remember in one visit, sometime in the 2007/2008 timeframe, noticing a lot more of Apple’s signature white earbuds being worn around town, but Japanese tech was still omnipresent everywhere I went.

Last fall during a week in Tokyo, I took another trip out to Akihabara and was amazed by how much things had changed. Or rather, how much they hadn’t changed.

The big electronics stores were still there, but the products featured weren’t nearly as advanced as I’d remembered. In fact, the best consumer electronics I could buy in Japan weren’t all that different than the best consumer electronics products I’d find in the U.S.

Whereas Sony, Toshiba, and other local tech companies had dominated the local laptop and mobile phone market during that first trip, the hottest new products I saw people using were built by folks like Apple. iPhones and Android devices were everywhere.

So what changed? Even before the rise of the iPhone, it was obvious that the Japanese economy and the tech ecosystem there were both in decline. While they held a significant technological advantage for years, they weren’t able to capitalize on it.

But clearly the rise of new operating systems led by Google and Apple, as well as the move from ‘online’ to ‘mobile’ signaled a major shift in the way people interacted with technology.

If there’s one nice thing about that shift, it’s that I now regularly get to play with some of the coolest tech that is out there — and usually not long after it is released.

Except for the toilet seats. The Japanese are still decades ahead of the U.S. in toilet seat technology.

Photo: By Jmho [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons