Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger

A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger was really an excellent book focused on Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell and his Chief of Staff David Cohen during Rendell's first term in office from 1992 through 1996.

Bissinger is best-known for writing the best-selling Friday Night Lights and to write A Prayer for the City he was granted close access to Rendell and Cohen. In the preface to the book, Bissinger makes reference to admiring and learning how cities worked from The Power Broker by Robert Caro and from the first part of Caro's book that I read, I'd say A Prayer for the City compares well as Bissinger managed to provide a very human view of the workings and difficulties of a huge city along with a very personal story of two men trying mightily to preserve it against steep odds.

At the beginning of the book, Bissinger notes how Cohen served as Rendell's campaign manager during his winning 1991 mayoral bid, after losing first a bid for governor in 1986 and then mayor in 1987, and that Cohen took a huge pay cut leaving a law firm to become Rendell's right hand man. The job both men signed up for seems to almost have been like tilting at windmills with the multiple pressures facing Philadelphia, including homeowners and jobs leaving, heavy racial stratification and mistrust, and need to work with and get support from Federal and State lawmakers with their own problems as well as agendas.

Bissinger portrays how Rendell as mayor had his flaws, definitely impetuous and inappropriate at times, sometimes erratic, but above all, he cared, as did the tirelessly working on behalf of Rendell and the city Cohen. The message out of the book was that the two men did great work together and when they started his term, they calculated a five year budget deficit for the city of $1.246B if they stayed the course financially and a fair amount of the book is then about their efforts, ultimately successful, to get city unions to sign contracts that would make the budget work.

Even with these manageable city contracts in place, long hours put in and what certainly seemed to genuine best efforts on behalf of all citizens by both men, the city still seemed on a downward spiral like other huge American cities and also covered heavily in the book was the racial strife and bleak economic picture for many in the city and the closing of the the navy yard and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to keep it going.

It's a fascinating read of tireless efforts that didn't always lead to what was sought, but seemed to definitely make things better than they would have been had Rendell and Cohen not worked so hard and invested so much in the city.

Interesting business writing - on Mercedes, Rodney Mullen, prediction models, Lego & Cicada

There's been a few excellent business related pieces I've seen lately with stories that I saw just yesterday included one from Yahoo Autos (I know, who would have figured?) and two from Wired Magazine.

The Yahoo story was by Neal Pollack (who wrote the book Alternadad) with "How the pied piper of Mercedes plays the automotive media" and a pretty rollicking and entertaining read on what could perhaps be described as boondoggle "experience" events, in this case for automotive media. Related to the whole rollicking and entertaining notion, it was fascinating reading about the orchestrator of the junket, Mercedes' U.S. director of communications, Geoff Day.

The Wired pieces I found of note were  "Silicon Valley Has Lost Its Way. Can Skateboarding Legend Rodney Mullen Help It?" by Brendan Koerner and "The Man Who Knows Whether Any Startup Will Live or Die" by Klint Finley. The story on Mullen was a fascinating read by the author of the sensational book The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking and that from Finley was on predicting business success or failure out of models created by Thomas Thurston, who I mid-last year wrote about and linked to his piece "Christensen Vs. Lepore: A Matter Of Fact" for TechCrunch.

Two other recent business related pieces I found excellent and haven't written on yet were "How Lego Became the Apple of Toys" for Fast Company by Jonathan Ringen and "Cicada: Solving the Web's Deepest Mystery" by David Kushner for Rolling Stone, with this last one perhaps less business-centric than the other stories, but just a compelling and pretty trippy read.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Interesting writing related to enterprise software & APIs

There's been a lot of interesting business related writing I've seen recently and four of the pieces definitely seem to group together with three covering enterprise software growth and future direction and the fourth about a fundamental building block of technology and software communication.

The first piece to note was written for the site SaaStr by venture capitalist Jason Lemkin with "All These Enterprise IPOs: Why It’s Just Getting Good. Why These are The Best of Times for SaaS." It of course stands to reason that a venture capitalist focused on SaaS companies would be bullish on the market, but there's definitely some interesting points made by Lemkin. He writes in the piece of how "it takes, in the Enterprise, 6-10 years to build something real, something ready to IPO" and notes and then elaborates on factors he sees as driving growth: that markets are rapidly growing, it's easier now more than ever for companies to scale and that competition is helping drive this aforementioned growth.

From Fortune Magazine was an interview with definitely one of the giants of enterprise software with Adam Lashinsky writing "Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff on where big tech is headed," an interesting short read which covers Benioff's views on the importance now and in the future of data science and artificial intelligence.

Another obviously forward-looking piece was by venture capitalist Fred Wilson with "A Lens Into The Future Of Enterprise Software"for his blog AVC. It was also a pretty short piece and one thing I noted was Wilson's comment that he's "seeing a bunch of new SAAS companies get started whose entire value proposition is building on the open APIs that most enterprise SAAS products have released in the past few years."

With this quote as a segue into the final piece to note here, I recently came across a post to Medium with "APIs: How the Internet Works Behind the Scenes" by Michael Bock. It's a well-written essay that in the intro contains "APIs, or 'Application Programming Interfaces,' are the hidden backbone of our modern world which allow software programs to communicate with one another. Although most of us don’t know it, behind the scenes of every app and website we use is a mesh of computers 'talking' to each other through a series of APIs."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chris Sacca interview done by Jason Calacanis

The point of this blog has been to highlight stuff available on the web that I find interesting across multiple categories including sports, writing, and business and while most of the posts I've done here have linked to compelling writing by others, there's also been posts on interesting videos I've come across. In April 2012 I did the post "Chris Sacca Interview with Kevin Rose" on Sacca as a venture capital investor interviewed by Rose and today I viewed another fascinating interview of Sacca, one from Sept 2012 and done by entrepreneur Jason Calacanis for his site This Week in Startups (which has 500+ prior interviews available on it).

The interview Calacanis did with Sacca is split up into two parts, which each 60-90 minutes long and the first episode 291 of This Week in Startups and second episode 295. The interviews themselves are definitely worth listening to, and below are the things that stood out to me (not an actual transcription, but what I found most interesting) from episode 291:

Background overview - Sacca started his Lowercase Capital investment company in 2007 and prior to that was an attorney, then worked at a startup, and then Google.

Being helpful - Most of his investments made haven't come from leads through his site or meeting people at conferences, but through his network and relationships that he's built and people he's been helpful to. He notes that there's many different opportunities to be helpful and types of types of people to be helpful to, entrepreneurs, the press, users, service providers, and more.

Startup founders & belief in themselves - Sacca notes how important startup company founders are and how with more and more startups there's many founders that aren't that great, but that truly disruptive founders have a different gene. Examples of this provided include Ev Williams and how Williams views situations without really viewing failure as a possibility for himself, rather he looks and says the world would be cooler if something built and the failure option isn't a part of his math. Another example noted is Elon Musk and how he goes after huge problems and huge opportunities, it's a a fearlessness. Sacca notes how one challenge he faces is if he has to be asking founders how a business can be 100 times bigger as the founder should be doing that on their own. Another leading founder example given is Travis Kalanick of Uber and how he’s both unreasonably fast moving and executes on huge plans. Additionally, Kevin Systrom of Instagram is mentioned as a founder that's bullish and magnetic and someone who you look into his eyes and have no doubt he’s going to succeed.

How now a great time to have a startup - It's covered in the interview how 10 to 15 years ago it was harder to have a startup as bankers controlled much of the access to capital needed to run a business. Now the tools like Amazon Web Services are more in place to empower the new class of entrepreneur.

Sacca background prior to the Valley - Sacca details how starting in sixth grade, he went to the University of Buffalo to do math and then by high school got burned out on it, applied to the top school in the country that had no math, and went to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. Then he was living in Spain and Netscape went public and helped rekindle his interest in computers and math. He came back to the U.S., didn't know any venture capitalists, applied to law school, got in, took the student loans and used the money to start a company. His company went nowhere, but he had enough left to start trading, and in 1998 picked good stocks that went on huge runs and turned $10K into $12M in 18 months. Nobody told him to cash out, rather that he a genius, and he was fully leveraged in two stocks, had the market unwind and within a couple weeks was $4M under water in his own name.

Time in the Valley prior to Google - Sacca came out to the valley, got a job at a law firm and was working for them during the day and at night writing business plans. He was still heavily in debt, but didn't want to go bankrupt and have that potentially get in the way of a future career so worked out payment plans and started grinding away to get the debt down. Things were going well, but then he four days prior to Sept 11, 2001 got laid off and had to go out and hustle, attending every networking event he could find. People would pat him on the back and say things will work out and Sacca then rebranded myself, creating for himself a fictional company, the Salinger Group, which did any number of things that he may want to do later. People began hiring him for work and Sacca ended up at a company called Spedera, about which he said he learned more working there at a small company than at Google as he did so much, heard so much, and came away with a generalist knowledge.

Time at Google - Sacca got hired at Google due to both his business and law background and with a job to secure data center space for the company. He and another person would find space, negotiate costs and taxes and then tell Google when ready for servers to move in. He notes how they needed to be quiet about efforts so that Microsoft wouldn't know how big search was and would use generic company names, like Design LLC. He developed a reputation as being a good negotiator and from there got asked to work on other stuff like M&A. Sacca talked about how Google was a place that you could just show up in meetings and people wouldn't ask why you’re there, basically a hustle place where you do it now, submit your expense reports and hope it gets approved.

Early investing - Sacca covers how he finally made it back to zero, had some money to do angel investing, and his first was Photobucket and second investment was Twitter. That came about because he was an early user of Twitter and Ev Williams called and said "hey, I've got you for $25K" (which Sacca didn't really have, but went in anyways). He notes how he as a non-employee just started showing up at the company and helping as he could, and how people often don't give themselves enough credit for how helpful they can be. Even if not an expert, insight someone has can be valuable. This notion of being helpful that was mentioned earlier in the interview was credited as then leading to him building up a portfolio of investments.

Later investing - He first raised an $8.5M fund that was broad based and went across the startup market. It's noted in the interview how when you’re raising money for a fund, potential investors are evaluating just you, which can be harder then if it’s your company, where they’re evaluating both you and the company. That first fund went well and Sacca then raised a fund to buy Twitter shares from early employees and investors. He covers how he depleted his entire checking account on Twitter shares and had less money than any reasonable angel investor should have, but just believed.

Venture capital industry - Sacca noted how the relationships between investors and founders change depending on the stage. In the first few rounds of investment, people are in it together, but then as things reach Series B investments, there can be a divergence of interests. It's easy for a VC who already has the money to tell a founder to swing for the fences, a million dollars or zero dollars. Basically, people can have different agendas financially in terms of exit strategies.

Twitter as a company - Sacca covered how he got into Twitter because Ev pulled him in and later doubled down on the company. He also spoke of how Twitter has had three CEOs now, feeling that each the right person for that phase of the company, smarter than he, and when he sits down with current leadership he has confidence in the decisions they make. Also covered about Twitter is how it's so simple, but people don’t recognize how powerful its simplicity is and how hard it is to get there. He notes how on his business card it says simple is easy to use, hard to make, and hard to charge for, but complex is hard to use, easy to make, easy to charge for. The beauty of Twitter is all the stuff that’s not there, and that’s not an accident, but years spent letting the simplicity spent for itself. Additionally noted is how Twitter is a commercial platform and place to get things done. Basically a massive commerce engine that helps people take cues from others who they know or care about that give signals about what they should be buying.

Current investing by Sacca - He notes how he's got over a billion dollars under management in funds and is an opportunistic buyer. Covered is how at the time of the interview Sacca had two funds primarily, Lowercase Spur which is larger and writes half million checks to startups and Lowercase Stampede which invests at the intersection of tech and content. Sacca notes that he wrote a whole thesis on it, but the space finally makes sense as traditional VCs were afraid to do content, but there a gap where valuable stuff not getting done. Also covered was how he invests in entertainment and another investment was Kickstarter. In relation to that, Sacca spoke of how when he saw the opportunity, he thought it would make the world a better place, but didn't know if it would make money so put his own cash in and didn't include it in the fund. He additionally talked about how Kickstarter being run for the long haul, like a 20-year horizon where the company founders don’t want to sell, but want to just draw salary and not go public. Sacca talked about how he knew this up front and had to soul search before investing.

The final thing to mention from the interview that I found interesting was Sacca and Calacanis both Howard Stern fans and knowledgeable about the show. More reason in my mind to like the guys and part one of the interview was really interesting and beyond reading this writeup, totally worth viewing/listening to.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Great sports stories - by Branch, Jenkins, and Castrovince

Three great pieces of sports writing I've seen recently included a pair of stories about an amazing climb done in Yosemite, a piece about an incredibly free-spirited and whimsical NBA player and one about an MLB umpire that's a tale of loss and moving forward.

The climbing pieces were by John Branch for the New York Times with first "Abduction. Lost Finger. Now a Rock Climber's Tallest Hurdle." and a week later "Pursuing the Impossible, and Coming Out on Top" with both on Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen and their epic first ascent of El Capitan's Dawn Wall.

The NBA player story was "The Man Behind The Swag: Nick Young" by Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated and an amusing and interesting tale on Young, perhaps better known for dating pop star Iggy Azalea than being a Los Angeles Laker.

On almost the complete opposite end of the profoundness spectrum was a piece by Anthony Castrovince for Sports on Earth with "John Hirschbeck's Survival Guide" on the man who had two children die from the rare genetic disease Adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, just over 20 years apart. It's a solid piece that brought to mind Lisa Pollak's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning story "The Umpire's Son" on Hirschbeck.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Writers on writing - Hylton on Hillenbrand, Leitch on Boyhood & Tullis on Journalism class wisdom

There's been a few pieces I've come across over the past month that featured writers on writing (a subject I've oft rambled about on this site), including a profile of a great author, review of a brilliantly done movie and Journalism professor on great writers who talked to his class.

The author profile was "The Unbreakable Laura Hillenbrand" by Wil Hylton for the New York Times and an in-depth look at a fantastic writer (I wrote here about her book Unbroken) with a really remarkable back-story as someone forced to largely remain at home as an adult due to chronic fatigue syndrome. Just fascinating details from Hylton on Hillenbrand's life as well as her writing process.

The movie review was actually written in July 2014, but one I waited to read until actually seeing the film this last weekend. For Deadspin, Will Leitch wrote "High On Life: The Divine Boyhood, Reviewed" on the movie written, directed and produced by Richard Linklater. It was a pretty monumental film in both scope (a fictional work filmed over eleven years) and actual delivery, with how, for lack of a better word, human it was.

The piece on writers and wisdom from them was by Ashland University professor Matt Tullis who did "What 14 Great Writers Taught One Journalism Class" for the website Nieman Storyboard. It was a tremendously cool piece that at the end had a link to another Nieman post, "10 Pieces of Wisdom from Top Writers" with axioms taken from class speakers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Great pieces on water and resource utilization

There's been a few few different pieces (and one video) I've seen recently that struck me as fascinating on the subject of water as a resource.

From a recent issue of Businessweek was "Israel's Water Ninja" by Amanda Little on the Israeli Integrated Water Network Management startup TaKaDu. It's a remarkably interesting look at water efficiency and identifying leakage on a widespread utility scale where the losses prevented can be enormous.

Related to water usage required was a piece from the Jan issue of Outside Magazine with "The Top-Secret Food That Will Change the Way You Eat" by Rowan Jacobsen. Written about the company Beyond Meat and its forthcoming Beast Burger, it's a well written and important look at the idea of getting away from eating beef, among other reasons for the huge amounts of water needed to generate a pound for eating.

For the Dec/Jan issue of Fast Company was "We're Running Out of Water" by Jon Gertner, an interesting piece that notes how water systems, and the concept of desalination from saltwater to drinking water, can have fairly entrenched markets, effectively limiting the amount of innovation and people looking to enter the field.

The last thing to note here on the subject of water isn't actually a written piece, but rather a video on the Google Ventures website with Kevin Rose interviewing Scott Harrison of the highly regarded Charity: Water. Just a fascinating guy doing important work.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Interesting business writing - on Salesforce, Amazon, Jet, Twitter & Datanyze

Some of the most interesting business writing I've seen lately included three really well-written feature stories, two insightful opinion pieces and a cool short piece about asking.

The first of the features to note here was for Businessweek with "Marc Benioff's Philanthropic Mission: San Francisco" by Brad Stone on efforts by the Salesforce CEO and it was a solid look at efforts by Benioff to give back.

The other two features definitely are related with Austin Carr for Fast Company writing "The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezo's Fire Phone Debacle And What It Means for Amazon's Future," a story perhaps somewhat disquieting for Amazon shareholders, and then Brad Stone in the latest Businessweek writing "Amazon Bought This Man's Company. Now He's Coming for Them." Stone's piece is on the forthcoming eCommerce site which will follow a Costco-like model of steep discounts (that can escalate depending on shopper choices made) and membership dues. It's definitely an intriguing idea that's being launched by Marc Lore, formerly of Quidsi, a company that Amazon acquired to get its site.

The opinion pieces I found particularly interesting recently were about Twitter, which I love using and marvel at what it can do. "There’s Something About Twitter" was by venture capitalist Fred Wilson for his AVC blog and Ev Williams (one of the founders of Twitter and I guy I find to be brilliant) wrote to Medium "A mile wide, an inch deep" about user metrics for the site and the point of the whole thing.

The final piece to note here was by Eugene Kim for Business Insider with "How Cold Emails Led This 29-Year-Old To Get Funded By Mark Cuban And Google." About Ilya Semin, CEO of the startup Datanyze, and his asking for product and business concept feedback from experts, it was a really interesting piece in which Kim attributed sage advice to the company founder with "Semin says people are generally always willing to help, especially when you're not asking for money. He always asked for feedback first, and that's what propelled his business to early success."

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson was an interesting business book from the accomplished writer, leader of the Aspen Institute and former CEO of CNN as well as Managing Editor of Time. Isaacson previously wrote the bestselling biography Steve Jobs (which I wrote about here) and The Innovators features the subtitle How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The book covers a tremendous amount of ground, with some of the earlier sections perhaps not as interesting if someone interested primarily in the more recent past, and a recurring theme throughout is the importance of collaboration.

Chapters of the book:

Ada, Countess of Lovelace - chronicles the woman born in 1815 and often credited as having the ideas behind the first computer.

The Computer - Isaacson wrote of computing efforts before and during WWII, "great innovations are usually the result of ideas that flow from a number of sources. An invention, especially one as complex as the computer, usually comes not from an individual brainstorm but from a collaboratively woven tapestry of creativity."

Programming - from this chapter it was interesting to read of the huge role played by woman in writing the first computer software.

The Transistor - Isaacson introduces the computer pioneers Robert Noyce (written about in a 1983 Esquire profile by Tom Wolfe) and Gordon Moore (source of Moore's Law) who were first hired by William Shockley into Shockley Semiconductor and left to form Fairchild Semiconductor.

The Microchip - Fairchild then became too bureaucratic and Noyce and Moore teamed up with Andy Grove and started Intel with venture capital money from Arthur Rock.

Video Games - sort of the harbinger of things to come with computers for personal use.

The Internet - started off with government funding towards the idea of enabling communications to continue in the event of a nuclear strike.

The Personal Computer - similar to the previously stated idea about collaboration at work.

Software - heavily featured the duos of Bill Gates and Paul Allen & Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Online - covered email and bulletin boards.

The Web - Isaacson noted huge contributions from Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen (via the Mosaic browser), Ev Williams (blogging), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) & Larry Page and Sergey Brin (search).

Ada Forever - the book then closes with a return to Ada Lovelace and a tying together of the arts and sciences.

Really an excellent book from Isaacson that anyone interested in computing technology would likely enjoy.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Writing on important things done - with pieces by Grady, Montgomery, Martinez & Strawser

There's a few stories I saw in the past month that stood out to me as important writing on things done in the face of horrible situations, with two pieces features about heroic work and two pieces short, first-person accounts of inspiration.

The stories on particularly important work were "An Ebola Doctor's Return from the Edge of Death" by Denise Grady for the New York Times on Dr. Ian Crozier and the two-part series "The Lost Bones" by Ben Montgomery for the Tampa Bay Times. The series by Montgomery followed up on writing he did previously on decades-ago atrocities at the Dozier School for Boys and these recent pieces about efforts led by University of South Florida anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle to find and identify remains on the grounds of the former reform school.

The other two pieces to note here were first one from 1986 with "He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do. : Reck of the Tribune" by Al Martinez for the L.A. Times and then "An Extra Angel on Top of the Tree" by Jessica Strawser for the New York Times in early December. Each story definitely trafficked in extremely sad topics and both also well worth reading.

Great sports stories - on Bumgarner, McCloughan & Luck

Three great pieces of sports writing from December included one on World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, one on NFL talent evaluator Scot McCloughan and one on Colts QB Andrew Luck.

For Sports Illustrated, the excellent Tom Verducci wrote "2014 Sportsman of the Year: Madison Bumgarner" on the Giants starting pitcher with the unbelievable postseason run this year and the feature from ESPN was "The Far Sideline" by Seth Wickersham on Scot McCloughan, who helped build both the 49ers and Seahawks rosters in recent years.

The other football story that stood out to me as excellent was for the Wall Street Journal with Kevin Clark writing "Andrew Luck: The NFL’s Most Perplexing Trash Talker." The banter from Luck after being sacked is definitely different than normal and seems to either be the result of him being a exceedingly nice guy, incredibly crafty or a combination of both. Regardless of the cause, it's a fascinating approach.