Thursday, April 02, 2015

USAIR...old school and not in a good way

USAIR ("now part of the new American Airlines") is going to have to change their ways or someday they'll fail.

I always try to fly Southwest Airlines because they never have change fees and the customer service people and in fact all their staff are in my experience always nice and helpful.

But flying on USAIR ("now part of the new American Airlines") into DCA instead of Dulles or BWI is too convenient to pass up. So when I travel down to Washington, it's not on Southwest. I was reminded again today of why that's risky.

I had booked a flight down and a flight back about two months ago but realized a week or so before my trip that I should be taking an earlier flight. Easy thing to do on Southwest but not USAIR. It was cheaper to buy a new one-way leg than suffer the change fee and rebook that new outbound flight. Thinking I was doing the right thing, even though there was no economic incentive to do so since I wasn't getting a refund, I went onto the USAIR ("now part of the new American Airlines") website and canceled the outbound portion. I swear, though I don't have the screen shot, that it did strike-through font on only that portion the trip.

When I went to take my return flight I wasn't able to find my reservation. Calling USAIR ("now part of the new American Airlines") I learned that my whole flight had been canceled. When I explained that I'd just canceled the outbound portion, they told me that was impossible and that indeed even they couldn't do that in their system because it was a round trip flight. I was forced to I buy a new  return ticket on a later flight at a price 3x my original ticket. No refunds, no apologies, no sympathy. And of course I had to book online because booking via the person with I whom I was speaking would have costs an extra $35.

None of this would have happened on Southwest, not the original change fee, nor the subsequent problem with the cancellation of my ticket, nor the entirely unsympathetic customer service person.

And if I'd booked my flight in USAIR in two steps, one outbound and one inbound, instead of in one transaction, the cost wouldn't have been any higher but their system could have handled my changes, I think. This is perhaps the most annoying part of the whole thing.

For a business traveler to encounter a business that doesn't seem to want my business, in this day and age in the United States, is increasingly old school and not in a good way.

This unpleasant experience was offset slightly by my Kimpton hotel stay. I know it's silly, but I find it gratifying to get a $10 credit on the well stocked room minibar just because I'm on their free rewards program. Every person at Kimpton I've ever encountered is just so nice. And the moment I checked out I got an email telling me I'd been upgraded to next tier status.

I wonder if whoever is managing the new American Airlines realizes how old they really are.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meet my assistant, Clara. I wish she could change her name and gender.

I just signed up for the new virtual assistant service by Clara Labs. It's a service that helps manage setting up appointments, using a virtual assistant named Clara Lovelace. I'm currently in the 14 day trial period.

You're instructed to write e-mails as if Clara is a real person, cc'ing "her" on your replies to requests for calendar invites. Your virtual assistant will then process the back and forth of setting up either an in person or phone call and put it on your calendar. I've used it now four times. The first two phone calls were set up perfectly. Clara is now in the process of scheduling an in-person meeting for me and another phone call. I'd guess that using this service has easily saved me 30 minutes if not more in the last 48 hours. It's very very good so far and I think worth the money.

But I have one problem.

With the basic service--which isn't cheap at over $100 per month, as much as Salesforce for example--you can't choose the name of your virtual assistant. It's always Clara Lovelace.

Several problems with that.

First, it's female. If I had to choose, I'd choose a male name because. Assistants are always female. If you can easily make a choice, why not address the gender in balance, at least perceptually?

Second there's that name. First person I talked with about this, a very high level tech industry CTO who hadn't heard of the company said, "isn't that a porn name?"

Of course "Lovelace" refers to Ada Lovelace who is the creator of the first computer algorithm. But I would bet that the average person would as easily see it as a reference to Linda Lovelace, with all of those porn star connotations that being a Lovelace in that context creates. And is it an honor or a slight to make a "daugher" of Ada Lovelace an assistant, especially in the context of ongoing conversation about diversity in the Silicon Valley workforce where this app will get its first traction? Was any of this discussed at Y Combinator where Clara Labs was launched?

So, I'm of two minds about the identity produced for me by having a virtual assistant named "Clara Lovelace" and keeping up the conceit with my email correspondents that this is actually a real person, or at least not telling them it's a virtual assistant. If a real person applied for a role as an assistant and they happened to have that name would I not hire them? Or course not. But it's annoying that I'm forced to think about these issues when some simple additional code could allow me choice. You can choose the name of the assistant with the higher level service, but that's 3x or so the price.

Third, because "it" is a "her" it makes me glance just ever so slightly in the direction of Joaquin Phoenix and I just don't to even have a hint of going in THAT direction!

Again, I don't want to take away from the fabulous effort of this startup. It has proven itself to be a great product, at least in these first few days. But I had to raise these issues.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Definitions of seed funding: a perspective beyond software

The inimitable Jason Calacanis has written a blog post called "Official Definitions of Seed, Series A, and Series B Rounds". I always enjoy Jason's posts and he holds a special place in my heart for declaring a war against angel groups that charge startups to pitch. But this "official" definition should really be the official definition of seed funding for software startups.

Jason says that in 2015 the stages are as follows
  • Pre-funding: You talk about your idea, you build a prototype & launch an MVP.
  • Seed Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
  • A Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.
  • B Round: The funding necessary to get founder liquidity, build groovy headquarters, and make competitors give up (or not start in the first place). 
Yes, but ... if you're a regulated healthcare technology company you can't launch an MVP until regulators says so. If you're a certain type of science or engineering company, your pre-funding has to be grant capital from the Federal government. And many a STEM company is going to require at least A round funding before they can start any sort of sales.

Our venture fund, Long River Ventures, seed funded a company called Convergent Dental, making a product which we believe will replace the dentist drill. They sped through the prototype and regulatory process but their MVP came on the back of A Round funding. Now they're scaling with their B Round, delivering sales month after month but far away from any kind of founder liquidity that Jason says characterizes B Round.

I'm working with some truly special researchers coming out of the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry. Startups coming out of this center will owe their genesis to our tax dollars, through Federal government funding via the National Science Foundation. It would be brilliant if they could launch an MVP just based on this money and SBIR funding. But depending upon the particular spinout (and there are three so far and two in the works) it's going to take them an A round before they get any kind of product traction. With my colleagues at ecosVC, we're helping them move forward as fast as possible, teaching them techniques for market/research iteration but science can only be pushed so fast.

Finally, the science and engineering teams that are funded by VentureWell, the organization where I serve as Senior Advisor, for the most part can't follow Jason's trajectory. They are making engineered products, about half of them medical. These students are dedicated, passionate, work cheap, come from both big name and lesser known universities, and are determined to get their products into the hands of customers. But it's a disservice to them if we tell them they can always follow the easy paths of those who I like to refer to as their slacker peers such as Snapchat and their ilk. 

VentureWell also runs the NSF I-Corps program. Using Steve Blank's Lean Launchpad program, it helps NSF funded researchers learn the customer discovery process. It pushes them as hard as possible to get to an MVP as soon as possible. But again, science can only be pushed so hard and in some industries, where a bad MVP can actually kill people, not merely crash a web browser, the path is longer and harder.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Louisville accelerator for agriculture companies

I spent the last four days in Louisville, Kentucky helping lead the last of three sessions of an agriculture technology accelerator. This is the sixth time I've been to Louisville to lead such a session and the fourth such program I've either led or co-led.

The accelerator was a program of Village Capital, an organization that has a truly unique approach to educating entrepreneurs and selecting companies for investment. It took place over three 4-day sessions (October, November, January). I also helped lead a similar program in Louisville in summer 2013. The organization for which I'm senior advisor, VentureWell, collaborated with Village Capital to teach the program. Four of our teams (from NSF I-Corps, which we manage, and from our E-Team grants program) were part of the cohort of ten. One of the ten was from Kentucky and the rest from around the country--Georgia, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado etc.

The unique approach of Village Capital is to commit $100,000 to the cohort and have the cohort members themselves--the participating companies--choose which two companies, at the end of the cohort, best merit funding of $50,000 each. Each of the first two sessions, and at the beginning of the third session, there's a peer-ranking process completed. After the ranking is completed, peer companies have to articulate the reasons behind both the positive and negative scores they gave to their peers. This helps surface areas where the companies have to do better at explaining their business model, or areas where they simply need improvement. On the last day--in the case of this program, that was yesterday--the peer selection process becomes real, that is it results in the award of investment funds.

I'm more convinced than ever that this is a great driver for business acceleration. It produces a tremendous opportunity for iterative learning and challenges companies to understand how to think like an investor. Surprisingly, it also results in an incredibly collegial cohort rather than a "survivor-type" experience. Because the companies are adjacent but not competitive they can be of great value to each other. Sure they're competing for the final investment, but it's not enough money to drive them crazy, just enough to make them serious.

The companies in the cohort were as follows:

Agribotix: actionable intelligence for precision agriculture using drone derived scans of farmer fields.

Apitronics: site-located weather stations for more accurately and inexpensively monitoring diverse environmental factors – such as temperature, moisture, and humidity – within the microclimate of a farm field.

Farm-X: residential farm kits and larger scale farm monitoring and analytics.

FIn Gourmet: Kentucky grown wild-caught fish processed into surimi products.*

Growcentia (NSF I-Corps graduate). Natural plant growth stimulant result in bigger plants with smaller environmental impact through healthy soils

Iron Goat (VentureWell E-Team). Robotic hay harvester and pelletizer.

IUNU. Greenhouse lighting that is 30% more efficient than LEDs, with tunable light spectrum to improve plant growth.*

reNature (VentureWell E-Team). Super space and time efficient aerobic digester.

TekWear. Hands-free data capture and note-taking for farmers.

Wildsense (NSF I-Corps graduate). Wireless, underground water monitoring with a five year life--no digging up the sensors every year.

* These are the two peer selected companies but truly a tremendous and highly investable cohort overall.

If you're interested in seeing the companies, they'll be doing a fourth session in at UC Davis on February 20 and 21. Contact Candice at VilCap.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished ..."

Nassim Taleb's vision from his book Antifragile for an address to the nation on National Entrepreneur Day:

"Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished, but we are grateful for the risks you are taking and the sacrifices you are making for the sake of the economic growth of the planet and pulling others our of poverty. You are the source of our antifragility. Our nation thanks you."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Value Propositions

Our VentureWell value proposition video. I scripted this in late 2013 and we produced the final in early 2014. I just reviewed it again and realized, hey, it's pretty darn good!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

changing roles

I'm changing my roles at my two positions this summer. I have been working primarily as Director of Venture Development at VentureWell (née NCIIA) and on the side as consulting CFO of Long River Ventures.

With the launch of Long River Ventures III, I'm going to be switching to Long River as my primary role and taking on a Senior Advisor role at VentureWell. I'll be supporting the venture development team at VentureWell and working to ensure a transition as a new program officer for the E-Team program is identified and brought on board. I'll be focused on our collaborative relationship with Village Capital, and the accelerator program Village Capital VentureWell that we have developed.

I'm excited to continue to straddle these two complementary but different areas of my career. With Long River Ventures, I'm looking forward to leaning in and being able to better support the three partners in implementing their third venture capital fund. Entrepreneurs don't realize that in a sense each new venture capital fund is itself somewhat of an entrepreneurial startup, al beit with an experienced team and in the case of Long River, investors who have invested in previous funds. Long River as an organization has been around now for well over a decade, with a consistent inventor base and the same partners delivering great returns. They know how to run this business and deliver results. I'm honored to be on their team and engaged in the third fund.

I'm also pleased that leadership at VentureWell wants me to continue my engagement with the organization. I've been involved on and off with the organization almost since inception two decades ago and am a strong advocate of its mission. The organization is now almost 35 people and well beyond its startup phase. I'm looking forward to advising the team on how to best implement its venture development efforts and believe that my more active role with Long River will in fact serve to strengthen the quality of the support that I'm able to provide VentureWell.

Monday, March 31, 2014

They call me @VentureWell

They call me VentureWell ... yes, NCIIA is changing its name and the VentureWell program that I run is now the name of the whole organization.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A flow-chart to make the 506 investment rules easier to understand

There's a been a lot of confusion in the startup community about the changes in securities laws commonly referred to as "Rule 506". Basically, on September 23, 2013, the United States SEC issued new rules governing the public disclosure rules under which private companies can raise money from investors. There's been a lot written about those rules but I haven't found any simple guidelines that are comprehensible at a glance. Therefore, I developed the following flow-chart. Note that of course I'm not an attorney and you should definitely consult one if you plan on raising equity funds for your startup. A large majority of high growth potential startups will be raising funds under 506 and the following should give you some working knowledge as to the issues to consider. Comments and corrections welcome!

Picture is linked to a full screen PDF

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Village Capital VentureWell Health Boston

Excited that we're launching Village Capital VentureWell on May 18, 2014 in Cambridge and Boston ... but we've got to find 15 great health ventures interested in collaborating as a cohort to move their ventures forward!

This will be the third time I've worked with Village Capital to deliver a program for entrepreneurs based on their peer selection model. Very simply, at the end of the program entrepreneurs in the cohort choose which of the companies best merits investment. Two companies will get $50k each in equity investment, half from Village Capital and the other half from VentureWell. The program takes place of three intensive four-day sessions, in May, July and September.

Often the first question I get is, "Isn't that like Survivor?" It's not. Although there certainly some tension around the voting process, otherwise we produce a collaborative environment for all the companies participating. No start-up is covering every base and most have something to offer the other teams. For example, one team may be highly knowledgeable about medical reimbursement but need engineering help. Another team may be in the opposite situation.

We're looking for companies with innovative medical devices (Class I, II), diagnostic technologies and health IT platforms. We are especially interested in enterprises that have B2B business models and address a problem, disease or medical condition that disproportionately affects rural or low-income Americans or others currently underserved by the U.S. healthcare system.

Applications close April 7. Take a look at and click the link over to the application on the Village Capital website.

Monday, March 03, 2014

@Lupita_Nyongo made me cry

I haven't posted in a while but this one is worth it. Lupita made me cry. Can I be allowed a little pride by association, having gone to the same college as her?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

station wagon #UnabashedGearheadGnarlyness

A very special, joyful car video: Icon Derelict vs. MB E63 AMG-S. There's something so wonderful seeing such careful attention to over-the-top engineering precision and design that playfully evokes history and fantasy.