I recently read a blog post by Fred Wilson entitled “Program or Be Programmed” that suggested that in today’s world of rapid technological innovation, we should educate ourselves on the framework underlying the web. In his post, he quoted Douglas Rushkoff, a proponent of technological education:
When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed.
I fall into the group of technological illiterates. Although I consider myself fairly informed about the web ecosystem and emerging information technologies, I have never taken a programming course and have no knowledge of how to “hack” or “code.” As you can imagine, Wilson and Rushkoff’s message startled me as someone seeking to begin a career in the tech startup sphere.
Within his blog post, Wilson discussed recent USV investment Codecademy.com. Codecademy provides a series of interactive, educational exercises for computer illiterates. I didn’t have any other plans (shocker), so I figured that I would give it a shot. Before I give my synopsis of my experience using the site, I cannot overemphasize my lack of familiarity with coding and programming. I almost irreparably ruined this very blog trying to insert some code to track reader activity…on that occasion, Google Analytics provided detailed instructions on how to insert the code, and I still managed to temporarily disable Disqus comments and my ability to create new posts. So yeah, I was not technically literate by any stretch of the imagination.
If I had a complaint, it’s that lessons are short and lack opportunities to repeat and refine recently learned skills. It’s tough to really learn how to use new skills without an opportunity to experiment with their function. To provide the ideal learning environment, I would include practice questions at the end of each lesson. These questions could range in difficulty and integrate several sub-lessons. In the spirit of math homework with answers in the back of the book, I would provide links to correct solutions; a proof reading function to highlight flaws in code; and a “Provide Next Line” function for students that are stuck, but not hopeless. I also think it would be cool if the site provided a “freestyle” terminal to just experiment with new skills.
Like learning the alphabet in order to eventually read (or even write) a novel, the early lessons on Codecademy provide little context. Hopefully as the lessons become more sophisticated, I will learn some of the context necessary to become more “technical.” Until then, I’m just enjoying the ride on a cool new educational web service, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in technology and a little spare time.
Note: I wrote this post as a sort-of manifesto for myself rather than as a blog post for my readers (all zero of them). I have spent a lot of time thinking about my career, and in order to organize my thoughts, I wanted to put them into writing. I figured, why not do that on my blog where I could potentially receive feedback? This post is probably the most intimate articulation of my frustration with my employment situation.
My depressing, and seemingly never-ending unemployment has had one benefit: I have had an inordinate amount of time to ponder and plan for my career. I have applied for jobs in several sectors, and I would love to work directly for a startup investment fund or early stage company. My background, however, seems to dictate that I will ultimately land in the legal world. My interest in entrepreneurship dictates that I will build my legal practice around the startup world. Assuming that I will end up working in the legal sphere, and assuming (more precariously) that my legal career will revolve around entrepreneurs and venture capital investors, I have developed a plan that will allow me to build a strong, meaningful, and sustainable legal practice. Ben Horowitz’s post yesterday about lead bullets and silver bullets immediately inspired me to organize my plans in a completely new framework.
Lead bullets are practically, rather than strategically, focused, substantive solutions to problems. Lead bullets don’t involve a change in direction or strategy or marketing; they are simply refinements and improvements to the substantive aspects of a product.
I have explored the possibility of attending Duke’s Law and Entrepreneurship LLM program next year. Obviously, I would prefer to find a great job and begin substantively building my career, rather than going back to school. Given the current legal job market, however, that opportunity may not arise within a reasonable amount of time, and having another high-level credential can only help me in my search to find an entry point for my career. If I cannot find a job during the next few months, I am prepared to detour to Duke to learn skills necessary to effectively serve the needs of entrepreneurial clients. The narrow focus of the Duke program will allow me to focus specifically on learning relevant skills for my ideal future legal practice.
Informal Education and On the Job Training
My “product” is my competency to perform legal work, and in order to be successful, I will build the skills and knowledge necessary to provide high quality legal services to entrepreneurial clients. A law firm with a large and diverse corporate practice would offer the ideal environment to build the crucial core competencies. More specifically, I hope to do work in the following areas early in my legal career:
- Securities, specifically focused on private placements and regulatory compliance
- Mergers and Acquisitions, specifically building drafting, due diligence, and negotiation skills
- Fund formation, specifically experience forming the general and limited partnerships that form the structural base of venture capital funds
- General entity formation, to advise very early-stage entrepreneurs on choice of entity and initial formation issues
Building technical legal skills, however, will not constitute my entire training for a successful career. Engagement with the underlying industry is crucial to establishing a successful entrepreneurial legal practice. During the past several years, I have read blogs and articles about the tech startup and investment communities. By spending time each day reading and learning about the startup community, I will be able to offer guidance to early stage clients.
Work, Hard Work
Ultimate success, regardless of the environment, will depend upon my willingness to work my ass off and devote myself to building the necessary skills. I am more prepared to work hard than I have been at any other point in my life. I have never experienced failure of the magnitude of my persistent unemployment. This lack of failure has occasionally led to complacency and underachievement. The experience of begging and pleading for an chance to prove myself has taught me that having the opportunity to work hard each day is a privilege rather than a burden. I will never take that opportunity for granted again. Hard work is the ultimate lead bullet, and it will serve as the foundation for my career.
Silver bullets, for the purpose of this discussion, are strategic, rather than practical, ways to add value for clients and employers. These plans revolve largely around business development, marketing, and “product” differentiation. These solutions are designed to add value outside of the actual provision of traditional legal services.
Newsletter for Clients/ Fellow Attorneys
The venture capital industry, particularly in the tech sector, have committed to transparency through an active community of influential bloggers. These bloggers include prominent venture capitalists who have chosen to share critical aspects of their investment process and strategies. These blogs give critical and valuable insight into the investment process and current trends in the tech investing world. A newsletter that consolidates the most insightful blog posts and news items each day would be a useful reference for both attorneys working within the entrepreneurial community and entrepreneurs seeking to build investment-worthy products. Providing that resource will set me apart from other attorneys working in this sphere and create value outside the narrow confines of providing legal services.
Bring IdeaBounce to Birmingham
While I owned Wash U Wash, I had the opportunity to work with the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Each month, they hosted events (called IdeaBounce) in which aspiring entrepreneurs could pitch their companies in front of a panel of “experts.” Over time, this has evolved into a web service which allows entrepreneurs to “pitch” their ideas via a short paragraph and solicit help building their product. The service allows others to contact the entrepreneurs with feedback and suggestions. The ability to create an online database of entrepreneurs in the area and more visible public “IdeaBounces” could be a tremendous resource for sourcing potential entrepreneurial clients and integrating the firm into the local startup ecosystem.
Volunteer at Innovation Depot
Birmingham’s successful startup incubator, Innovation Depot, provides access to some of the most promising early stage ventures in the area. By performing pro bono legal work for these companies, I will develop relationships that could ultimately lead to paid legal work and valuable connections with local entrepreneurs. Additionally, it would be a productive and rewarding experience to foster the growth of great local companies that could improve the local economy.
Creating a Network for Entrepreneurial Clients
Several early stage VC firms, First Round Capital and True Ventures, have added value for their portfolio companies by integrating them into collaborative networks with their other portfolio companies. For instance, First Round hosts founder roundtables, created an equity exchange program to allow for diversification, and creates mailing lists that allow founders to seek input from other founders. The ability to create resources and facilitate valuable communications between clients would differentiate a law firm from its competitors in the emerging companies industry.
By combining lead bullets (improvements to substantive legal services) and silver bullets (extra-legal, value creating activities), I hope to forge a successful legal career. There are hundreds of lawyers in every market that have the lead bullets to be valuable representatives for early stage companies. The traditional nature of the legal industry, especially in the South, however has led to a legal market that does not cater to the unique needs of startup companies. I hope to offer service in excess of traditional billable-hours-only legal services. Now I just need to find an entry point…
Richard Bevan, head honcho of the League Manager’s Association, has revealed this week that several foreign owners in the Premiership oppose the traditional promotion/ relegation system.
“If you take, particularly, American owners, without doubt there have been a number of them looking at possibly having more of a franchise situation. That would mean no promotion or relegation. That would obviously not be good news for English football.”
Having spent the majority of my life rooting for American sports teams, I understand why American owners flinch at the prospect that their club will sink to the Championship, rather than languishing profitably at the foot of the Premiership table. If you buy an NBA team that underperforms, then at the end of the day, regardless of its success, you still own an NBA franchise. American sports owners buy franchises for a variety of reasons including the psychic benefits of owning a sports team, the financial benefits of owning a professional sports team, and surprisingly rarely, the opportunity to achieve on-field success. The system in the US rewards, or at least tacitly allows, bad owners to plunder their franchises for personal and financial benefit without penalty. As a result, poorly managed franchises remain in a state of perpetual profitability… and competitive mediocrity.
In England, however, the relegation/ promotion system creates a meritocracy that rewards overachievers in lower divisions and punishes underachievers. Under the promotion and relegation regime, the bottom three teams in each league are replaced by the top three teams from the division below. The revenue differences between leagues serves as a huge incentive for owners to invest in the success of their club. Thus, the English FA punishes owners that refuse to commit to the success of their club.
I support Mr. Bevan’s opposition to changing the traditional promotion and relegation system for two major reasons.
The Clippers don’t have a Premiership analogue. Let’s keep it that way.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers, serves as a beacon for all other potential owners that value franchise ownership solely for the inherent psychic benefits. He has presided over a perennially mediocre franchise that sacrifices a competitive team for a healthy bottom line. Sports teams are not prudent investments for rational consumers. Mark Cuban declared that he considers the Mavericks a “consumption good” rather than an “investment.” It would be crazy to suggest that all owners should ignore the investment characteristics of their franchises like Cuban, but it seems eminently reasonable to suggest that they should also be required to also pursue competitive success. The promotion and relegation system creates a strong correlation between protecting investment value and fielding a competitive team, thus incentivizing success much more successfully than American sports leagues.
Club owners invested in the clubs under the current regime. They paid for clubs that might be relegated, not perpetual Premiership teams.
The current owners knew the rules when they decided to invest in their clubs. The fact that the environment is not conducive to eternally high valuations of their assets does not validate their current argument. In response to their concerns, I only have one thought: caveat emptor. The purchase prices of Premiership clubs presumably incorporate the risk that the club will suffer the ignominy of relegation. The high valuations of clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United reflect not only the value of their tangible assets and current revenue streams, but also the small likelihood that they clubs will suffer catastrophic short-term failure and subsequent relegation. A fundamental change in the “rules of the game” would allow owners to invest at a level that incorporates the risk of relegation and sell at a risk free price. That sounds like nothing more than an attempt to create an arbitrage opportunity through systematic collusion among owners. That type of self-serving behavior cannot be condoned or sanctioned by the FA.
The English promotion and relegation system has created an environment that discourages the type of lazy ownership that plagues several major sports franchises in the US. Good ownership of a sports team requires both a financial commitment and a commitment to competitive success, and any rule that reinforces that two-pronged mandate should be commended rather than abolished.
Yesterday, I applied for a job. I also applied for a job on Monday. And one on Friday. And two last Thursday. Yesterday’s experience, however, differed dramatically from other job applications. Instead of simply requesting a static cover letter and resume bundle, the company requested that all applicants record themselves answering two interview questions on a new website called www.taketheinterview.com. Yesterday was my first experience using Take the Interview, and I thought I’d post some thoughts on the experience and the site, in general.
- The tutorial video when you log onto the site for the first time gives good ideas about how and where to set up your computer to get the most professional recording possible.
- The website is super easy to navigate and use, providing step by step instructions for each stage in the interview process. I can’t imagine that anyone could get to the site and not be able to create a video recording.
- There is a practice question that the interviewee can answer as many times as they want. This may not seem like a big deal, but it definitely takes some practice to acclimate yourself to the experience. Without the ability to retake the practice question, I probably never would have attempted the actual interview recording.
- The software allows interviewers to also post a question requiring a written response, which could offer insights not found in traditional one-on-one, in-person interviews.
- The best, and most useful feature of the site for me going forward, is the mock interview feature. Taketheinterview.com has compiled question banks for multiple types of interviews (legal, consulting, finance, etc.), and users can record themselves answering random questions from these question banks. The potential for self-critique and ultimately improved interview performance in both video and live interviews is a huge plus for someone, like myself, on the job hunt.
- This experience differs tremendously from sitting down across a desk from someone and having a conversation. My interview really highlighted how much information I take from non-verbal cues during a traditional interview, and not having a conversational partner makes it tough to get into a comfortable speaking rhythm.
- While you answer the questions, you can see yourself on screen. Interviews are nerve-wracking enough without wondering if you look goofy when you speak. This is where having the unlimited practice questions was helpful, because I eventually acclimated to seeing myself on screen.
- I knew the questions before I took the interview. This posed a much bigger problem than I thought it would. When the interviewer originally posted the job, I jotted some thoughts and went to the site to do the interview. My first experience trying to answer the questions (in the practice question space) went horribly. I sounded rehearsed, disingenuous, and very self-conscious. I ultimately decided to delete my notes and spend some time just thinking about the interview questions. I thought of my answers for brief periods each day during the following week, and by the time I went back to take the interview, I was able to answer coherently and (somewhat) articulately without sounding like I was reading a soap opera script. The desire to work off of notes, however, came from…
- The permanent nature of a video interview adds pressure to create a polished product. In a traditional interview, the discussion occurs in the flow of conversation. In a conversation, people say “uh” and “um” from time to time, and it does not leave a lasting impression. On film, however, each verbal stall is memorialized in a permanent recording that can be viewed again to glean information about the interviewee’s rhetorical prowess. I struggled to speak naturally, knowing that each “uh” would be forever memorialized. Again, the unlimited practice questions were the solution to this problem, but the hyper-awareness of each verbal miscue never totally disappeared.
Overall, I had a positive experience with the site, but it definitely required time to become comfortable with the medium. From an employer’s perspective, I would expect this type of interview to eventually replace first round screening interviews and resume collections. The preponderance of my interview experience is in the legal sphere, where law firms fly lawyers around the country to conduct on-campus screening interviews. This costs the firm airfare, lodging, and hours of attorney time to get a fleeting initial impression of candidates. That same process can be replicated through taketheinterview.com at a fraction of the monetary and opportunity costs.
I vividly remember responding to an e-mail from Marcia, a parent of a prospective Wash U Wash customer. I called her at the phone number provided in the e-mail, and spoke to her about our service. We spoke for about 30 minutes about our service and Wash U, in general. I remember that conversation, because I was speaking to her during my family vacation at the beach… on my 21st birthday.
While Zach and I owned Wash U Wash, we learned the value of providing personal and timely responses to customer questions and concerns. During the summers, we fielded 10-15 e-mails per week from prospective incoming freshman customers (and their parents, like Marcia, who purchased the service for her daughter, by the way). We learned that responding quickly to those e-mails engendered good will, and ultimately yielded more subscriptions to our service.
During the past several months, I have been desperately searching for a job. As part of that search, I have sought advice from hundreds of lawyers, and recently several venture capitalists. The response rate hovers around 60%. For months, I justified the non-responses by telling myself that the lawyers were barraged by so many e-mails that many were passed over, unread, and unreplied. I have recently changed my mind.
My latest round of e-mails went out to roughly ten attorneys and two venture capitalists, Jason Mendelson of Foundry Group and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures. I received return e-mails from several attorneys (I’d guess around 60%, shockingly) and both VCs. That’s right, 100%.
I thoroughly appreciate the attorneys who responded. I know that they are busy and that I offer no value to them at this point. That point remains equally, and especially, true for the VC’s. Fred Wilson’s blog receives hundreds of thousands of views per month, and he is an important figure in the VC world. He responded. Jason Mendelson just published a book, and was on the road promoting it when he received my e-mail. He responded, too. Furthermore, I received a greater percentage of responses from attorneys at Cooley, the top rated venture capital law firm in the country, than attorneys in Birmingham.
The VCs aren’t successful by accident. Neither are the attorneys at Cooley. Their success is built on a plethora of factors. One of those factors is their understanding that taking a few minutes to respond to a stranger engenders good will and positive perceptions. If I ever have an opportunity to help Mr. Wilson or Mr. Mendelson, I will do it in a heartbeat. I can’t say the same for the attorneys in Birmingham that were too busy to take a minute and shoot me an e-mail.
I may never reach a point in my career where I can offer value to these people, but you can be sure that I am not the only one who has benefitted from their responsiveness. In the aggregate, they are creating networks that may someday offer value. If you are not making the effort to respond to e-mails, you risk alienating a potential network of people that may offer value in the future. It’s no coincidence that the lawyers at Cooley and the VCs occupy a lofty perch at the top of the VC industry.
awesome quote by Bezos
If you have ever been asked to find a lost sheep, fertilize a crop, or artificially inseminate a heifer on Facebook, you have come into contact with Zynga, the interactive social gaming company that makes Farmville and Mafia Wars. Zynga is one of the most successful venture-backed internet startups, having been valued recently at $1 Billion and projecting 2010 earnings at $460 Million.
Zynga highlights two interesting points. First, the rise of Zynga as an independent force really drives home the prevalence and power of Facebook. Second, Zynga took the Tumblr approach to revenue generation, and has been hugely successful.
Zynga has become the most successful company in capitalizing on Facebook’s massive web traffic. Facebook is now so powerful, that Zynga, a company that essentially rode Facebook’s coattails, has received a valuation of roughly $1 billion. This has to be viewed as a success for both entities, although it seems that this symbiotic relationship has become much more contentious during the recent negotiations between the two companies. You may have noticed that you don’t have 300 Farmville notifications each day like you did in the past. That’s because as part of the negotiations between the two companies, Facebook incorporated those notifications into their privacy controls, making them significantly less pervasive. This clear attempt to strong-arm Zynga into making Facebook the primary distributor/ web home of Farmville and Mafia Wars by decreasing their internal Facebook marketing system, was however does not appear to have achieved its intended purpose.
Zynga has realized that they would be foolish to tie their fortunes to any one market, even one as powerful and stable as Facebook, so they have begun to diversify (much to the chagrin of Zuckerberg and team Facebook). Zynga has plans to launch their own gaming site, Zynga Live, and has recently teamed up with Yahoo, potentially bringing Mafia Wars and Farmville to your Yahoo homepage. The power of Zynga as an independent entity, now capable of challenging Facebook itself, demonstrates how much influence Facebook can have (and will undoubtedly have in the future) on the fortunes of other internet startups.
Zynga’s revenue generation model is also a poignant example of how to generate revenue without advertisements. Zynga generates 90% of its revenues through the sale of virtual goods within its games. While I was skeptical that this approach would work for Tumblr, it has apparently gained some traction in the world of internet startups. The $460 Million revenue projection for Zynga indicates that it certainly can work with a large user base, and the financing VCs (who in total contributed over $200 million in financing) saw the potential before the revenue stream had become so impressive. It will be interesting to see if the same proportion of users on Tumblr, a much different type of service with a significantly smaller user base, will pay for the premium, value-adding blog features.
Thanks to Union Square Ventures and Spark Capital, Tumblr, and consequently this blog, are set to persist for at least a few more months.
MediaMemo reported on April 20th, that Tumblr has received a new $5 million round of financing from two VC firms, Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures. According to VentureBeat, this third round of financing brings total venture investment in Tumblr to $10.2 million. Furthermore, according to Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures via blog comment (on tumblr!) this round represents a “huge step up” for Tumblr. Given that the third round is roughly the same size as the second round, this presumably means that this $5 million acquired significantly less equity for the VCs than the previous round. This increased valuation is interesting given that Tumblr is not yet generating significant revenues from their impressive web traffic (over a billion page views per month. MediaMemo)
Tumblr’s founder David Karp is “pretty opposed to advertising,” so how does the company intend to become profitable? Tumblr is pursuing a non-traditional model of revenue generation. They are charging for (at least arguably) value-adding blog features. For instance, my Tumblr theme costs $9. There are, however, hundreds of free themes, so bloggers and readers can enjoy many of the benefits of the site without any outlay of cash. Thus, the revenue generation should not have any significant negative impact on the traffic of the site.
The concern with this system of premium features and add-ons is that they will ultimately go unpurchased, and Tumblr will be unable to financially capitalize on their large and growing web presence. MediaMemo claims that originally Tumblr planned to launch a premium service that would include many of the add-ons that are now offered on a piecemeal basis, but ultimately decided on the current business model because “it may be easier to coax money out of people a couple dollars at a time.”
This model should provide a good case study on alternative revenue generation techniques for high traffic websites. Tumblr has the option of testing this strategy, because as stated by Fred Wilson, their overhead (including server costs) have remained low and their backing VCs believe in the gradual, rather than immediate, monetization of the site.
It will be interesting to watch what happens to Tumblr in the near future. I predict that within several months Tumblr will be either selling ad space or will have been bought by Yahoo or Google (as speculated in MediaMemo), who will use advertisements to generate revenue from the site. Spark and Union Square, however, agreed to the new round of financing at a higher price presumably with the knowledge that Karp has no intention to create revenue through advertising. If I had to bet on myself or Spark and Union Square prognosticating correctly about the efficacy of this relatively unique approach to monetization, I would probably lean towards the two experienced venture firms rather than the fledgling blogger(really going out on a limb here), but I will be watching the developments with Tumblr’s anti-ad stance with some interest.
After an enlightening discussion with Zach and much clamoring from the reading public, I am finally writing a blog.
I have contributed to several other blogs during the past year, including the mind-numbingly popular Tadster blog (for which I served as the fashion reporter) and the Rebar blog, but this space will be dedicated solely to putting my own thoughts and opinions into the public domain. ”Is the public domain really ready for that?” you may scream while reading this post on your iPhone on a treadmill at the gym. Well, to answer your question (despite the inappropriate volume, timing, and location of your query): Yes, I think the public domain can handle it.
I plan to blog about interesting developments in the legal world, specifically focusing on, but not limited to, healthcare and private equity issues. Additionally, I’ll sprinkle in some posts about sports, music, literature, and current events.
I hope my posts (at least occasionally) capture your interest and that the blog is ultimately enjoyable to read.
Put down your iPhone and get back to working out…people are staring.