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Invest in Karma for Above Market Returns and more...

Invest in Karma for Above Market Returns

Yesterday, I took my 96 year old Nana to Atlantic City.  

As you can see from the photo, she didn't win, but I did.  Almost $200.  Still, she had an awesome time and was thrilled to go.  Protip: Don't bother with the valet at the Taj Mahal.  By the time they get to you, you could have walked over, gotten your car yourself and come back to the front.  

Just this morning, someone on a rec sports team that I play on just told me that they lost their job and couldn't pay for softball anymore.  This season costs about $100.  House money, as far as I'm concerned.  I told him to consider himself covered by Donald Trump.  I didn't hesitate because a) Eh, money comes, money goes, b) I like this person and want to play with them, and c) karma always comes back to you.

It made me think of something I heard on a podcast the other day--about how leaders get help.  I've gotten a lot of help from a lot of people over the years, but I realize that's because of the investments I've made in helping others.  What I've seen is that if I make it a regular part of my investments in time to help others, when I do really need something, I've got a huge store of willing effort to tap.  That's extremely valuable.  It's not why I do it, but I'm also not oblivious either.  Like a good Pavlovian dog, I continue to give my time and help to others when that happens.  

On the other hand, if I never do anything for others, I'm creating a lonely island for myself where I'll need to rely on just myself to get anywhere.  That would not only suck, it would hurt the trajectory of my career and my firm's efforts.  

You cannot do it all alone.

So, while it feels good to help others, it should also be a part of any leadership strategy.  It's a bit like insurance.  Squirrell away a little bit of karma each week by doing something for someone else, because one day you're definitely going to need help to get pushed over the top.  

Still, I see selfish founders who don't treat others well.  It's a hard thing to do when you have a lot of your own pressing priorities, but it's going to catch up with you for sure.  I really do believe that the people who make it are the ones who are able to get help from others--and that well runs dry if you don't ever return the favor.

Do well by others because it's the right thing to do, but don't ignore the fact that it also has the nice effect of helping your career.

    



How Technical Advisors can Help Non-Technical Founders

No one wants to be *that* founder--the non-technical founder poking around developer meetups asking for a unicorn with a Github account.  It's not that there aren't great technical people willing to take a lot of risk to join a small team--it's just that there are *so many* people out there looking for them that it's hard to figure out who to take seriously. 

This is where a good technical advisor can help.  They can help vet what you're building, give you credibility in the hiring process and help assess candidates.

Go find someone technical you could probably never hire.  Maybe they're locked up in golden handcuffs post-acquisition of their startup.  Maybe they're coding at Google and at a point in their life where they'd rather make $300k than rough it at a startup.  

What you can offer is interestingness, a thoughtful challenge, and a little bit of equity.  Working with young companies is cool and it gets the juices flowing.  Plus, from the advisor side, it might be a good way to build up a little portfolio of startup equity without having to put up angel cash.  

Here are the three things I would ask a technical advisor to do for you:

1) Help you build a high level tech spec of what you need to build, so that you know that the product you're working on can reasonably be built given a) the current stage of technology and b) your resources and timeline.  They're going to tell you why an elevator to the moon is hard and why a stepladder might be a better place to start if you only have $50 and a carpenter with a hammer and a saw.  

2) They can be your advocate in technical circles.  It's a much stronger pitch when a software developer reaches out to another software developer and says "Hey, I saw your profile and it might be a very good fit with this company I'm advising" than when you do it and you look like the masses of MBAs looking for code monkees.  Plus, it gives you some street cred if at least one software developer thinks that what you are building should and could be built.  Ask them to add the fact that they're advising you to their various profiles if they can.

3) They can help you vet candidates as they come in--the first line of defense.  

What may wind up happening is that they can help get that first developer in, potentially mentor them a bit and join your company when you get enough revenue or funding to be a little more de-risked.  Or, they just move on to the next company to sherpa a bit. 

This happens all the time on the funding and business side--where someone experienced in business helps two developers figure out a funding or revenue strategy, intros them to customers, etc.  I haven't seen it done much on the technical side, but there's a huge opportunity out there to help promising ideas connect to the technical community.  

    


The Things that Fall Down

The other day, I found this neat inbox stats tool from Front App called Inbox Checkup.  (Thanks Product Hunt!) I've been wanting something like this for a while.  

Apparently, I respond to 18% of my e-mails, way above the average of 11%, and was #62 out of over 4,000 in terms of e-mails sent.  It was happy to know that I'm getting to a lot of things.  

Unfortunately, I was also #145 in actually getting e-mails, so what that also means is that while I'm getting to a lot, I'm also missing out on a lot.  What is painful is when I know there's that one note I should be responding to or one thing I promised to do that just keeps getting pushed off to the next day.  Like a splinter, you feel it distracting you just a little bit.

What's hard is that other people don't understand it.  What they've asked you to do will just take a minute.  Why is that so hard?

Those minutes add up, though... and you have to make some priorities.  I need to call my parents, my nana, respond back to that text about where I'm having dinner tonight, and oh yeah, my softball team needs an extra player for tonight otherwise we'll forfeit, so that's a problem.  And that's just personal stuff that doesn't include my desire to go to the gym or get some extra biking in so that I can beat Dave Morgan in our charity challege for the marathon. (Donate!)

I've got things I need to do for my portfolio companies, deals in process, investors of mine asking questions, and the list goes on and on...

And with each new thing, you try and slot it in somewhere... and sometimes, it's after midnight and you're done.  Whatever was on that list, well, this teller window is now closed and it will just have to wait.

It's frustrating and there really isn't a good solution, unless someone wants to make extra minutes in the day.  I feel like I'm getting to a ton and super efficient--but that doesn't mean I don't feel bad when I fail to recommend that content person to a few VC firms I know, or I didn't pitch that later stage video startup to a couple of investors.  There was that young entrepreneur who wanted an intro to the brand rep I knew back in the fall--he's in my mind, too.  There are probably about five or ten things just floating around that I never got around to.  I have a vertical blind missing from my living room window.  There's chicken in the freezer I needed to throw out....like... two years ago probably.  

Sometimes, it just falls down the list.

 

    



Piers, Parks and Why White People Suck

There's a saying...

"There's nothing worse than rich white people living in luxury housing in a park than the rich white people living in luxury housing protesting against them."

Ok, well, there wasn't a saying, but there should be.  

Maybe you've heard about "The Battle of Brooklyn Bridge Park."  It's a long and winding tale that basically amounts to this:

There once were some unused commercial piers.  Someone decided they should become a waterfront park.  Parks are expensive to build, so it was decided to cleave off a little bit of the park for waterfront housing to pay for the park.  The plan worked and now the park is beautiful and extremely popular.  Like, ridiculously popular.  

Everyday, tens of thousands of people visit the park's many amenities--beach volleyball, picnic grills, a pop-up pool, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, roller skating, and sure, hills, trees, grass, and spectacular waterfront views.

This pisses people off.

Come again?

Actually, there is a small but vocal group of folks who never liked this version of the park--who wanted something more akin to a lawn for their Brooklyn waterfront property.  They want quiet people to tiptoe silently past their brownstones on the way to the park, and only during daytime hours.

These local folks are suing the park itself because of plans to build luxury housing in the park.  

At first glance, you'd think with everything I just said, I'd be on their side.  Doesn't the idea of luxury housing go against all this cool park activity?

No.  Actually, we wouldn't have any of that stuff if it wasn't for the housing plan.  

You see, building a park is a very expensive proposition--especially a waterfront park.  The piers, vacant for years, had to be repaired.  The cost for the park totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The city doesn't have the taxpayer dollars laying around to pay for such a thing, so it was decided to leverage the value of waterfront NYC real estate to create a self-sustaining economic plan.  Housing on the ends of the park will be created in order to pay for the park in the middle.  

The result, as you can see if you've ever been in the park, has been a tremendous success.  People use the park and people love it.  

Well, most people.  

Some of the people who live near the park who believe they're owed a quiet street in New York City aren't so thrilled.

Who are these people?

Mostly rich white people in Brooklyn Heights.  As of the 2010 census, it checked in at 77% white, as opposed to the rest of the city, which comes in around 45%.  The average household income is about $115,000, compared to $44,000 for Brooklyn as a whole.  The streets are tree-lined and the neighborhood was a bucolic sea of tranquility for long before anyone ever wanted to come to Brooklyn.  

And here's where it kind of gets ugly.  The underlying sentiment here isn't simply about luxury housing.

It's really about their issues with what kind of a park it is and who visits it.  The park as it is currently designed is serving the wider community of Brooklyn, not necessarily the people who live right next door who may have, at one time, thought of it as "theirs".  

Take a stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park on a weekend.  It is teeming with activity and people.  What's really obvious is that this isn't a just quiet, trees, and grass kinda park...

...or as I think about it, a boring white people park.  

The vibe feels a lot more like Riverside Park in the North 100's--a cross between a non-stop 8 year old Dominican girl's family birthday picnic slash Dyckman streetball tourney with a little Crown Heights block party mixed in.  It has a diversity way more reflective of the borough of Brooklyn as a whole than it's immediately adjacent neighborhood overlooking from the promenade.  

I run the free kayaking program in the park--and it's the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse thing in my life.  

That's why I love it.  

As an investor in tech startup companies, I wind up in a lot of situations with well off white dudes.  While I'm not necessarily at the same income level as my colleagues (my dad was FDNY and my mom was a para in the public school system) it remains a pretty vanilla professional existence.  

Spending time with the 5,000-6,000 paddlers we put on the water each summer is a breath of fresh air, to be honest.  I'd guess that a full 50% of the people who partake of our paddling program come from minority backgrounds, maybe more--and our volunteer base reflects a lot of that diversity as well.  It makes me feel like I'm actually in a park in New York City--versus a gated oasis for local rich people like Grammercy Park.  

So what does all this have to do with the Pier 6 housing controversy?

The complaints about the housing reek of a kind of protectionism.  "I found this spot and now it's for me and people like me."  Many of the protestors actually live in One Brooklyn Bridge Park--an old warehouse in the park that was converted to housing.

So, now that they're in, they don't want anyone else to partake--especially if the new housing blocks their view. 

The bigger issue and they don't want to be so obvious about it, is that some of the new housing is earmarked to go to "workforce housing", which, for a four-person household, means available to those with income of $67,100 to $138,440. 

This is where it gets ugly.

Locals started complaining that affordable housing would bring down property values and that the park economic plan shouldn't have to pay for "the ills of the city".  

How would you like it if your neighbor called you "the ills of the city"?  

The lead plantiff in the lawsuit is a local resident whose private equity fund manager boyfriend bought a $7+ million apartment near the park.  They want their waterfront view preserved--at the expense of the park's main funding source.  They don't want to live near moderately priced housing.  They only want to live near other rich people.

To recap:

Rich white people who live near a park frequented by a great socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of people want to block the main funding sources of said park, which include moderate income housing that won't go to rich white people, in order to preserve their quiet, isolated, mostly rich white waterfront neighborhood.

You might think I'm grasping at straw, but just listen to some of the people behind the lawsuit:

“There will be those maybe pointing at us, saying, ‘Aha, you don’t want low-income housing,’ ” Mr. Merz said from his sunken living room overlooking a Zen garden.

“That’s an old game because you know very well we do prefer low-income housing,” Mr. Merz continued. “But we don’t want it in the wrong place, meaning there’s a right way to build it.”

This is an actual quote taken from a recent NY Times article on the situation.  I wish I was kidding.

"In the wrong place."

What is this?  1958?

Oh, but everyone knows they love low-income housing.  This guy Merz defended himself by saying he developed some low income housing in Buffalo, far far away from where they live now.  

Kind of sounds like "I'm not racist... look how many black people I know." 

Look, we're all prejudiced in some way.  Some of us are just more self-aware and aspire to be more open-minded, more tolerant, and more accepting of change.

The way I see it, on one side you have people who expect a tax-payer subsidized backyard lawn for their rich white neighborhood--one that is less likely to attract a diverse population from other neighborhoods--and on the other hand, you've got the diverse population of people who flock to the park day in and day out who depend on an economically sustainable park.  

You don't see them complaining that One Brooklyn Bridge Park is housing or that there's a hotel going up.  They're just happy they have a place to play and come and enjoy the waterfront.  

The good thing is, despite all the protests, the idea of housing as a way to fund the park is a train that left the station a long time ago.  In a city facing a huge pension and benefit crunch, there's no other place that the money to fix the piers and build the rest of the park is going to come from.  

If these people don't like the park and the people that it welcomes, they're more than welcome to move to Connecticut.  I'm sure they'll have no problem affording something nice if they sell, given how high property values near the park have skyrocketed since ground was broken a few years ago.  

    


Step Up

I wrote this note to a young company that had recently raised some money and moved into a shiny new office after busting at the seams in a makeshift setup.  The company was full of super young, vibrant, and incredibly talented people with a huge opportunity ahead of them--and a lot of difficult challenges.

------

Congrats on moving into your new office.

While I'm there are still a few bugs, bells, whistles, and bandwidth to work out, let me be the first to officially point out...

Shit just got real.

You have a real office. You're all together. You're organized into teams that are basically complete as a unit. Now, through the end of the year, will be a full on sprint like you've never run before. Crush it and this whole thing will take off like a rocket ship--with your work touching the lives of millions and millions of people around the world for years to come.

Make the most of this opportunity to build one of the most creative and inspiring places to work in the whole damn universe.

Seriously.

This is enormously important work. The world really needs this. I don't know if you noticed, but there are a lot of people out there who think of the world as a zero sum game--where anything gotten must be taken away from someone else and where those in power are resistant to sharing.

Creativity inspires people to reexamine the world around you--to challenge, to poke, to question...to ask why.

And that's what you have to ask yourself now.

Why?

Fulfilling the potential of this endeavor will be the hardest thing you've ever done in your whole life up to this point. It won't just be about late nights and heated disagreements but also pushing yourself to be better than you thought you could ever be.

Why bother?

Why put in so much effort?

Why strive?

People come up with all sorts of motivations--fear, money, fame...

Let me present what I think is a more fitting motivation for creative professionals on the verge of creating a very different kind of company...

Strive to be the best teammates you can be to each other.

Lift up the mission by lifting each other up. Do your small part so amazingly well so that the person who depends on your piece has a head start on what they need to do.

It could mean delivering an important illustration earlier, playing devil's advocate to your own codebase one extra time--making it cleaner, faster... ...or simply making sure the pens on people's desks are out of their package and in a cup when they start work.

Never leave someone behind in the office that you can help--even if it means just helping to motivate them with some solidarity and running out for slice of pizza when they didn't have a chance to get dinner.

Get hooked on gratitude--on the welcome and somewhat amazed expression of appreciation when you go out of your way for someone else.

Amaze each other everyday on what you do for each other...

...and moreover, what you do for [the founder].

Because no one will ever be more proud of what you've all accomplished together or more disappointed if you miss...

He works harder than any other founder I've ever met. The kind of person you should want to be to someone like that is someone who stepped up.

Everything he has done thus far--from being so careful and discerning about who he surrounds you with to giving you the creative freedom to thrive--it's the greatest gift you can imagine. You are unfettered to inspire, unlike so many of your peers who are weight down by stifling work environments, strict hours and pointless administrative overhead.

Just don't take it for granted that you know the team is good enough to somehow pull things together.

Don't take flexible policies as excuses to make things easier on yourselves.

Work/life balance is meant for you to develop in a more complete, inspired, and holistic way--optimized for creative output.

Not to work less.

Accept them as a challenge--to be a part of something really special.

That extra hour pushing ahead just a few lines more.

That middle of the night idea written down.

That thing you decided to learn and practice so that you could contribute more.

You owe it to everyone else around you to fulfill this company's potential and your own, and leave nothing to regret or missed opportunity.

To be proud of the collective accomplishment, driven by the individual effort, will pay emotional dividends for years to come, because greatness doesn't materialize at scale very often.

Best of luck.

    



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