Jan 12

Some followup thoughts on my SOPA post

The best thing about writing for me is that it helps me figure out what I really think about things. And one of the very best things about doing it on the web is that others can collaborate, disagree, tweak, suggest, and generally help think through things even better. So after a couple of days of Friday’s SOPA post rolling around in my head, I think I have a tighter point of view now that I wanted to write down. (There were some great tweets, mails, comments & posts in reaction to what I wrote. Super thoughtful & useful.

Here are a few specific starting points, then I’ll get to my main point, which is that we (a technologically-oriented US, at least) are not well set up for the future in terms of how we evolve tech policy. Not a new thought, but I think the SOPA situation may be putting us in a worse spot.

But first 3 starting points and a personal observation:

1. SOPA+PIPA are awful bills. No way around it. They over-reach, they circumscribe civil liberties, and they mostly will not work. They shouldn’t pass, and we should do whatever we can to keep that from happening. They’re the latest in a long line of legislation that looks like this: reducing freedoms in a misguided attempt to protect us from a different big bad. They’re so numerous in US history they hardly need listing here.

2. Existing industries are always oriented towards self-preservation. No exception here. But there’s a funny thing that happens: the most progressive companies of today who become successful and dominant will become reactionary in the future, oriented themselves towards self-preservation. Same as it ever was. And you can see it even in the current situation — the companies who are most outspoken are the modern Internet companies: LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga, Google, etc etc. Mostly on the sidelines are the most progressive technology companies of the past decades, even including Apple. So this is not, fundamentally, a techie v content type of issue at all, but more of a progressive v conservative technology issue.

3. We do have existing laws and norms. A number of folks argued that content owners just need to accept that pirated goods are a viable alternative and need to learn how to compete with them. I’m wholly unpersuaded by that point of view. Or, rather, I believe we do have existing laws that govern how we behave. It’s pretty clear (to me at least) that content businesses will need to evolve, and many interesting ones already have. But that’s something for a lawful market to decide, not for anyone to thrust onto content owners & creators.

And then a personal observation: I was actually a little nervous writing about SOPA last week because of the tone of the conversation to date. I felt like it might actually provoke harsh negative reaction and somehow brand me as “SOPA-friendly” or against the web. That’s a weird thing for me to feel, as I think my web & open culture bona fides are pretty well established at this point between my work with Mozilla, PCF, Code for America, and now Tumblr, etc etc. That by itself tells me that there’s something wrong about how things are going.

Okay, so given all that as a context, here’s my main point: no matter what outcome we get to with respect to SOPA+PIPA, we’re in a bad spot going forward. 

I think much of the legitimate frustration on the Silicon Valley side of the fence is that there seems to be no way to have a meaningful conversation about this stuff in ways that we know to be productive. It’s happening at this point with some guy who doesn’t seem to understand technology having his staff & a bunch of lobbyists prepare a non-sensical bill and then try to jam it through Congress, without any real effort to understand what might actually work. (And, worse, it’s being done in a way that seems deliberately designed to misinform.) So it’s a bunch of backroom, captured discussion that has massive impact on how we live our lives — and it’s all completely opaque (at best).

The real thing that I’m worrying more and more about is not SOPA per se, although that’s a very large problem itself. The real problem that I see is that our government just isn’t set up to make meaningful technology policy decisions going forward. I think Larry Lessig would argue that that’s now true about all facets of modern life, but I think that with technology it’s significantly worse. We have massive interconnectedness of systems built on an extremely rapidly changing foundation of technology. But more than that, technology is now transforming our private and public lives so quickly that we can hardly make sense of any of it at a personal level, let alone a public policy level. And there seems to be no way for legislation to keep pace unless we change the discussion there from specific technologies instead to principles of how we want to build and evolve our society.

And I just don’t see how that kind of conversation can happen right now.

I see how to defeat SOPA, more or less. But it’s more lobbying, more rhetoric, more Capitol Hill influence. And I think that all of that stuff ultimately corrupts industries that use it. I know this is not a new objection, and I’m sure that there have been people in every industry forever who have made this point.

So I think most of what I wanted to write on Friday is this: I desperately hope we can (1) defeat SOPA and more importantly (2) figure out a way to have useful technology policy discussions that can inform both our legistatures and law enforcement agencies. This isn’t the last law that will be technically poor and will impinge on civil liberties. There will be more, and they’ll come up more and more frequently as increasing portions of our society get disoriented by and disrupted by new technology.

We shouldn’t rely on symmetric (and corrupting) lobbying efforts to make things better; we’ll just get more of the same crummy situation we’ve got.

What I think we really need to figure out is how to help our leadership in government act and think in a more agile way, informed by more of our citizenry. More like the web, in a lot of ways. (Ed Lee’s announcement of an SF partnership with Code for America is a start.)

Maybe impossible, a pipe dream. But that’s the target I think we should be setting for ourselves, not just defeating a crappy, misinformed bill.

Nov 11

Joining the board of Code for America

I’m super, super excited to announce that I’ve joined the board of directors of Code for America, an organization started by Jen Pahlka two years ago aimed at getting some of the smartest and most motivated techies & designers among us working on solving some of the core problems facing our communities. It’s a non-profit organization full of awesomely smart and talented and motivated folks who actually make things that can create lasting change in our cities and states and country and world. (Sound like anything else I’ve been involved in? :-)).

It’s a humbling organization to join, because they’ve already made such amazing progress. They’ve got an amazing group of CfA Fellows working with city governments this year — projects in Boston and Philadelphia and Seattle; and one with the federal government as well. They’ve picked even more cities to work with next year in an expansion of the program. They’ve started the Civic Commons as a way to help governments share and take advantage of code that already exists.

More importantly, they’re showing how to build an organization that’s both civically-oriented and sustainable over the long term. In my view, CfA is helping a new generation of entrepreneurs and builders to figure out how to create products and organizations that can change our relationship with our cities and towns — not every startup has to be about maximizing financial returns.

So I’m really excited to join the organization — because of what it’s done in such a short time, because of what it represents today, and because of the promise it holds in unlocking so, so much positive and needed change in how we relate to our governments and our selves in the future.

Nov 11

My Introduction for Reid Hoffman

Last night, Aneel Bhusri, Jeff Weiner and I got to introduce Reid Hoffman for an award called the Innovation Catalyst Award here in Silicon Valley. We each spent about 10 minutes talking about our experiences with Reid over the years — always a fun thing to talk about, since he’s such an interesting, smart & good-hearted person. Was interesting, too, that even thought the 3 of us hadn’t coordinated at all in preparing our talks, they all came back to the same themes of his humanity, intelligence, and great desire to help good people be better. Reid is just a very consistent guy — he brings it every day.

Best line of the night was Aneel’s: “Reid is kind of like the Kevin Bacon of Silicon Valley.” Good stuff.

Here are the remarks that I prepared:


It’s a funny task for me to introduce Reid to all of you since he’s so well known. In fact, I’d wager that not only does everyone here know all about Reid already, but you’ve already had a lunch or a coffee with him at some point.

I was thinking maybe it’d be easier if I  just grabbed the 2 of you in the room that haven’t already met him or worked with him and give you the background one-on-one. 🙂

His public accomplishments over the last decade are extremely well chronicled — I don’t think I need to mention the fact that he changed the world at PayPal. Or started LinkedIn, changing the way we all do work in fundamental ways. Or that he was an early angel in Flickr, Zynga, Facebook and virtually every other massively successful company that’s come out of Silicon Valley over the last 10 years.

But most of that stuff is well known by everyone here, so instead tonight I’m going to focus on the human scale, and some of the ways that Reid has powerfully and meaningfully changed my life and the lives of so many people around him — I think that might work better to give everyone a sense of how he thinks, and why it’s so important.

The thread that will tie all of this together is that 2 questions dominate the way that Reid thinks and interacts.

The first one is this: “How can I change the world?” But really, every good entrepreneur asks that question all the time. Reid is unusually good at answering this particular question in a variety of different ways, but if that was the only thing he focused on, he’d be a great entrepreneur, but something less than he’s actually become.

The second question that I’ve heard Reid ask over and over and over is very simple: “How can I help?”

I’ve heard him ask it in board meetings, in pitch meetings, at the airport, over drinks — everywhere you can imagine. And in my mind, it’s the pervasiveness of that simple question — “How can I help?” — that sets Reid apart, and I’ll expand a little on that now.

My own working relationship with Reid started off innocently enough while he was still at PayPal.  I got an e-mail from an old friend Sean White who I literally hadn’t heard from in 10 years. The mail went something like this: “Reid, John: I think you guys might like each other; hope you can connect; I think it’ll be worth your time.” It’s maybe a measure of my cluelessness at the time, or of just how incredible a decade Reid has had since, but I didn’t know who he was, and he seemed only semi-relevant — a finance guy! from PayPal! but I trusted my friend Sean, so gave it a try.

Sean was right, of course; Reid and I hit it off immediately, starting with a breakfast at Hobee’s that would begin a strong pattern for us. He was at PayPal, I was at my own startup Reactivity then; we just got together and, predictably enough, started talking about who we knew in common. We spent a lot of time in those pre-LinkedIn days — like we still do, really, asking questions of each other like “Have you met X? What do you think?” Or “do you know about company Y? Important?” And: “Who else do you think I should get to know?” That’s Reid, always, always, always building networks, always trying to put people together, see if they might fit.

Over time we started working on various projects together, including Mozilla, and we’d each have lists of things to talk about going into each breakfast. The really remarkable thing about these interactions is that no matter how long we talked, no matter how much of our lists we would work through, we invariably left the meal with longer lists than we entered with — with more things to talk about, covering more shared areas of interst. And really it’s gone on like that since — another Reid characteristic for you: he’s always looking for more ways to help.

The other thing that was obvious about Reid at that point is that he always had a plan, and he pretty much did what he said he was going to do. He was really clear when the PayPal acquisition happened that he would be on to his next thing, whatever it was, soon. I figured he would take a bit of time off, catch his breath. I didn’t know Reid well enough then, obviously — he quickly moved on, figured out that helping other people build work networks was what he wanted his attention to be on. So he got started.

The conversation around LinkedIn was funny — obviously LinkedIn was the ideal startup for someone who thinks in terms of people networks like Reid does — in a lot of ways it’s the exact manifestation of his brain.

I was a little skeptical at the time — I told him, well, this might be good for “B listers with B list networks.” Obviously, folks with A list networks like mine wouldn’t want to participate. Reid gleefully reminds me of that interaction at the most inopportune times. They seem to be doing well enough so far. 🙂

But he was off to the races with LinkedIn, and around the same time I was trying to figure out what to do myself, having left my own startup a few months previously. And like he’s helped so many others figure out their path, he was extrordinarily helpful with figuring out mine. In 2005 I had sort of stumbled onto an unusual organization — a non-profit, and open source project — called Mozilla — it was just15 or so employees, but they had just released Firefox a few months before, and it held great promise — it was really starting to catch on. Reid & I both saw the promise right away, but as I thought about joining it, I was on the fence.

Typically, he thought we should discuss it more with someone he knew — in this case Joi Ito, now Director of MIT’s Media Lab. He said “Joi’s going to be in town for about 90 minutes, so we need to meet him at SFO.” I made fun of him a lot for having airport meetings — now of course, the joke is on me, since I schedule them, too.

So we met at SFO and had a conversation that, again, was typical of Reid & Joi, and went something like this: “do you think Mozilla is a place from which we can change the world a bunch for the better?” “Seems like it.”  “Well, seems like we should all lean in then!” That’s another very Reid phrase: “lean in” — it means we should figure out how to do something meaningful.

Reid likes to think about Archimedian levers — how to change the world the most with the most efficiency — and when he finds good spots to put the lever, he’s generally all in.

So from that meeting, we each leaned in — Joi would eventually join the Foundation’s board of directors, Reid would join the Corporation’s board of directors, and I joined in an operating capacity.

So for me, and for Mozilla, Reid’s orientation around finding ways to change the world, and to help others do the same, whether as entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs or any other way — well, his point of view changed everything for us.

And then I got to know Reid over the next several years as a board member, which is another great privilege, although a bit of a quirky one. Reid has a tendency to be extra outfitted in terms of his information technology. He’ll typically carry around 2 laptops and somewhere between 3 and 5 smart phones. So when he would come for a board meeting, lots of times he would bring out various of his devices and work away — enough so that you might start to think he wasn’t paying attention. But he is. Invariably during our board meetings, we’d be cruising along, Reid would be typing something or other then he’d pause, look up, and say something like “Really? That doesn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t it really be more like this other way?” He had a funny way of completely changing the flow of the meeting, of causing us to re-focus on the most strategic items again and again — as usual with Reid, it was him searching for the best leverage possible.

The funniest things were always when you talked about recruiting in a board meeting, though — every time I got back to my desk after discussing an open position at Mozilla, I’d have between 10 and 20 LinkedIn profiles waiting in my e-mail, suggestions from Reid on who to talk with next. His output is amazing that way. Even when dealing with a million other competing priorities, he’s as productive as anyone I’ve ever met.

I talk about these very personal experiences because they’re the ones that I know the best, but, really, you could ask just about any current entrepreneur in Silicon Valley how Reid’s helped — he’s always got suggestions, connections, questions, tweaks to your thinking.

Everyone’s got a “Reid story”, everyone knows his aphorism “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product you’ve released too late!” (Although now that I’m an investor myself, I probably could stand hearing that from a few less startups who actually did release too early!)

Here are a few insights from folks who know Reid well:

Nancy Lublin, CEO of (where Reid’s a board member), said this: “In a world where engineers have been the biggest winners over the last ten years, how did a philosopher become top shelf? It’s kind of an awesome winning forumla: the guy loves people. It’s not a mush, emotional thing. He’s actually extraordinarily logical — and to him, figuring out how people can become better is like solving a puzzle.”

Or DJ Patil, Greylock’s Data Scientist in Residence, who previously built the LinkedIn data team tells the story about how he went to introduce himself to Reid in a parking lot at UC Santa Cruz, whereupon Reid responded “Yes, I know who you are, we need to have lunch.” Their first lunch after that was 3 hours long.

And my own most recent example — I saw a pretty early, pretty raw startup this summer for a first meeting, which went well enough. I gave them some candid feedback and made some suggestions on how they might improve their product, at the end of which they said, “Okay, got it. But what do you think Reid Hoffman would think of our pitch?” Hilarious. 🙂

Overall though, here’s the thing: I haven’t met a single person in more than 20 years in Silicon Valley who’s more generous with their contacts or time, who’s more willing to listen and learn and brainstorm, or who genuinely wants everyone he meets to become as good an entrepreneur (in their work and in their own lives) as they can possibly be.

His fingerprints are all over today’s business and technology landscape, and increasingly our social landscape.

He’s got some of the flashiest credentials of anyone in the industry, but it’s hard for me to think of a more honest, self-effacing person to meet with.

He’s busier than anyone I’ve ever met, but he will always make time to meet with young entrepreneurs.

He’s smarter and more knowledgable about how the consumer Internet works than just about anyone, but leaves every meeting thinking about what he’s learned that’s new, where his old models don’t fit.

And the guy barely has time to read a book, let alone write one, but that’s exactly what he’s done this year. The focus? Helping everyone become an entrepreneur in their own life, naturally.

So in a lot of ways he’s a bundle of competing priorities and tensions.

But in the ways that matter, he’s a pretty simple guy, always asking “How can we change the world?” and “How can we help?”

As Nancy Lublin puts it, “He’s the best example I know of good guys finishing first,” and so I’m very humbled to be introducing my partner and my friend Reid Hoffman tonight.

Oct 11

Buried (but no excuses)

As an entrepreneur, I always hated fund raising — I hated not being in control of situations, I hated being at the mercy of markets and other peoples’ schedules. It’s a hard thing to take, and a very vulnerable feeling, especially when you’re used to running your own company and being mostly in control (more or less). I always was particularly frustrated when VCs would go dark for a week or two, not responding to something or not delivering on something I thought we had agreed on. So since becoming a VC myself, I’ve been trying really hard to be responsive and transparent.

Well, these past couple of weeks, I became that guy I’ve been frustrated with so often in the past. I dropped a couple of things I was supposed to do with entrepreneurs and they were very frustrated themselves with me — justifiably so. I think I’m mostly caught up on the things that I owe folks, but know that this is an area that I need to — and want to — pay attention to so I can minimize it in the future.

For whatever it’s worth, I now understand why investors can sometimes become non-responsive for a while. [It’s worth noting I’m not talking about the type of non-responsive that some people use instead of saying “no” to entrepreneurs — that type of behavior is a real problem, and not something that I personally think is ever really okay. I’m talking about disappearing for a few days when you’ve got a next step to plan, and then coming back later to follow up.]

This time around, with me, what happened is this: a couple of investments closed, a couple of investments got announced, a couple of companies I’m involved with went through financing conversations, and a couple of boards I’m on went through particularly meaningful discussions and decisions about the future. On top of which we had a bunch of things going on in our family life.

VC life is paced a little differently than operating, in my experience. It’s a lot of meetings with a wide diversity of entities. Entrepreneurs, recruits, recruiters, other investors, PR folks, etc etc. And just like operators, you try to do as much as you possibly can each week. Because of the external-focused nature of so much of VC work, that means a lot of meetings, and your schedule can get sort of jammed up. Which means you also end up scheduling a fair amount of meetings several weeks or more in advance — which means that you try hard not to move them, since people have been so patient with you in setting them up in the first place.

So you’ve got this normal base meeting load, which can get a little packed — and then you’ve got between 4 and 10 or more organizations who depend on you from time to time for significant involvement and decisions at the board level.

So you build your schedule so that when 1 or 2 of those organizations needs attention in a week, you can accommodate on top of that base meeting load. But when 4 or 5 or 6 company biorhythms line up so that you’re critical path on all of them at once, things get a little hairy. And when you add the other commitments of being a parent, child, spouse and friend, the communication load can just overwhelm you.

Which is what happened to me these past 2 weeks. I think I’m mostly on the road to being caught up now, but am bummed I caused a few folks (especially entrepreneurs) to become frustrated with me. As an investor & partner I need to get better about it, and think I’m learning and adjusting to things pretty quickly now.

One piece of advice I would offer though: if you feel like someone’s gone dark — me or another investor — just drop them a note asking what’s up. Generally that’s all the prodding I need to (at least) let you know more clearly what’s going on.

Sep 11

Announcing Greylock’s Investment in ClearSlide

We’re very happy to be new investors in ClearSlide, a company that builds tools for sales & marketing professionals to communicate — it’s radically simpler than the cumbersome conference tools we use today, and blends synchronous and asynchronous tools to make it easier than ever for sales people to close business. They’ve been flying under the radar since starting a couple of years ago — except with their amazing & rapidly growing customer list, full of raving fans who say they can’t live without it now. This morning they’ve launched more publicly with a new site and an announcement of new funding led by us and Aydin Senkut from Felicis, who led their initial funding.

What’s special about their products today is how simple they are to operate: you can get on the phone and do a product demo or share slides in under a minute. It’s trivially easy to send information around to customers and be able to understand what they viewed themselves or forwarded along. And it closes the loop by allowing easy sharing of all materials and insight with your coworkers.

And it all works in a web browser, with just a URL. No special installs, no plug-ins needed. I’m not talking about just modern browsers, either: any browser, even including IE6. (I’ll wait for your gasps of amazement to die down on that one. Also, it’s the last time I’ll ever mention IE6 on my blog. :-))

They’ve really thought hard about how to build great tools for sales and marketing people, and it shows.

It was a very quick decision for us — at Greylock, we talk a lot about “our kind of founders” — and Al and Jim are definitely that. Here’s what I mean.

We’ve known Al for some time — he was the founding CTO of Evite — it’s a little hard to remember, at this distance, what a revelation that product was, but it changed everything — it let us interact with each other and collaborate in ways that had just been way too painful previously. And it’s influenced too many startups to count since then.

Well, he and Jim came in to give a presentation to us about they’d done, they jumped right into how their customers love it, how sales are rocketing up, what’s next — and slowly it dawned on me that they were using their own service to present! So I opened up my laptop to type in the URL & access code and bam!, I could see their slides — took maybe 3 seconds. I got sort of excited so pulled out my iPhone, then my iPad — everything just worked. And to Al & Jim’s credit, none of my futzing around with various electronics fazed them one bit. They just kept moving, unsurprised that there were no glitches in what they’d built.

And that’s part of what we mean when we say “our kind of founders” — they’re strong product and operating founders, who after changing the world once with Evite, just put their heads down and did the hard work of building something from scratch these past two years. No hype, no fanfare, just customers that love their products and working with them.

So we’re very excited to get involved in the next phase of their growth, and couldn’t be happier to be leading their funding round. Take a look.