Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


The Real Challenge for American Car Manufacturers

It seems that most people have yet to notice, but American car companies are back. Well, not necessarily back financially, but for the most part, they’re back to building world class vehicles. Certainly, there are few cars waiting for their refresh or to be dumped and many cars and even brands have simply been removed from the scene. The new stuff coming out of Detroit, though, is really very good and, for the most part, cheaper than anything shipped to US shores.

As it turns out, though, building new world class cars was the easy part for the American manufacturers. Projecting that reality to the buying public, however, is going to take a very long time. And long-term thinking is just not an American business strength.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple of young entrepreneurs who were both planning new car purchases to accommodate their expanding families. I asked what cars they were looking at. Their answers . . . Honda, Toyota and Nissan SUVs with a BMW or Audi as a long shot. I asked if they had considered an American car. I got blank stares. I said that there were some really nice new small SUVs offered by Chevrolet and Ford. More blank stares. I told them that I had purchased one earlier in the year. Polite, but uninterested body language. I said that the gas mileage was great, it had more interior room than its competition, the safety ratings were the same as the cars they mentioned and after 11,000 hard city miles, the car was tight and solid. Maybe some slight interest, but I may have been imagining it. I then said that the car cost about $5,000 less than its direct Japanese competition and was $10,000 to $15,000 less than its German competition. They responded, “yeah, I’ll have to look into that,” and went to discussing the Japanese and German cars.

I have to assume that if the American companies continue to produce great cars at lower prices, eventually, the buyers will come. Clearly, the companies are going to have to be patient, though. When Lexus entered the US market, no one thought that anyone would buy a high-priced, “luxury” Toyota. At first, few did. Toyota knew this – they knew that it would take a very long time to be considered an equal with the worlds’ best vehicles in that class.  The costs must have been tremendous, but they stuck with their plan and we all know the outcome. The American auto manufacturers will need similar planning, patience and stick-to-itiveness.

Keep pumping out great cars at good prices, Detroit. Eventually, the buyers will come.

Note: there is some indication that the tide is already turning. According to the cars.com blog, KickingTires, Buick is currently outselling all luxury brands in the US except BMW (they are forecasted to beat BMW too by year’s end) with only four cars in their lineup and 73% year-over-year unit sales growth in February.

 March 21st, 2011  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The Art of Asking and Listening – Active Listening

In the Sales 101 book that I’ll eventually get around to writing, learning how to shut up may end up being the sole topic of the first chapter. It’s truly shocking to me how often I witness a sales person dominating a conversation with a customer. The less your customer speaks, the less likely it is you’re going to figure what his/her problem is and because of that, the probability that you’ll be able to discoverer an opportunity or address his/her needs will be almost zero. Simple as that.

Successful sales people listen to their customers, making each communication with a customer an opportunity for the customer to say more about themselves, their situation and their needs. As much as we have been taught that listening is a passive activity, good listening is actually an active one. It involves asking questions about what the customer is saying to show that you are, in fact, listening, that you understand what they are saying and that you are interested in learning more. As much as a conversation with a customer should never be about your ego, it should always be about their ego. Make them feel great about what they are saying and show your respect for them by working to understand fully and expressing your interest.

I was just in a meeting where two of the people at the table never said a word. This wasn’t a pecking order or hierarchy thing, they were equal players as far as the sale went. It was clear that their lack of talking had actually led them to be bored and disengaged within a few minutes of the start of the meeting. In this meeting, the sales person was doing all the talking. He never asked a single question of the two people or anyone else for that matter. At this point, I don’t think that sale will ever happen.

Societally, we often think of sales people as the best talkers. In fact, the best sales people are the great listeners.

 March 18th, 2011  
 Management, Selling  

Working on a WordPress Plugin

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any serious code, but that doesn’t keep me from dabbling every now and again. Of course, I always find myself on the steepest part of the learning curve when I come around to engaging with a new compiler, debugger, language or environment. Since I do it rarely, I tend to forget everything I learned the last time and usually end up changing something major between forays – language, environment, libraries or something – it’s new every time. That’s OK, but it takes a lot of time and energy to simply catch up let alone move forward.

My latest trial is creating, (more like changing and adding) code written in PHP. Specifically, I’m making a cut at taking over a now unsupported plugin in WordPress. As with most languages and environments, that means I have to ramp in several domains. PHP, SQL and WordPress, primarily, but there’s a bunch of smaller stuff too.

The plugin I’m working on is a branch of Now Reading Reloaded which itself is a branch of the original Now Reading plugin. The authors of both decided that they didn’t have time to continue to enhance them. After spending about a week getting my head into the process, I don’t blame them.

Now Reading Reloaded allows me to track and comment on books I read and lets me keep a virtual library that I can access and share on my blog (see the widget on the left with all the pretty book covers or the Library link in the menu for the full list). For the most part, it works well. I have made some modifications to it in the past, but minor, visual ones primarily. What I want to do is make some functional modifications that require changes deep in the guts of the code.

WordPress is conceptually simple and PHP is pretty straightforward (it’s a scripting language, though, and therefore its is always a bit funky). SQL is SQL, arcane as always, but totally standardized. Put them all together, though, and it’s somewhat dizzying, at least for a newbie at it like me. The structure of WordPress plugins is regimented, but is too complex to allow one to just dip a toe in the water. I’m going to have to do a deep dive if I’m going to pull this off.

Here goes . . .

 March 8th, 2011  

The Science Behind Traffic Jams

 March 6th, 2011  
 Stuff with a Motor  

Knee Surgery . . . Finally

dislocated-patellaAfter whining about a deteriorating knee that has slowly eroded my capability to ride my bike over the last few years, I finally found a sports medicine physician who diagnosed my problem and performed surgery to fix it. I had the surgery yesterday and start my too long recovery period today. Officially, the diagnoses was Chondromaliacia Patellae caused by Patellar Tilt (see diagram at right).

It turns out that amount of cycling I was doing caused the patella (kneecap) to be pulled laterally towards the outside of the knee. Basically, my lone focus on cycling caused certain muscles to develop while others remained weak, pulling things in one direction only. Since the patella was pulled outside the groove it normally sits in, it rubbed the cartilage between the kneecap and femur where it’s not designed to – over the sharper part of the femur. After about 10 million cycles, it rubbed right through so that there is no longer any cushion between the kneecap and femur. Bone rubs on bone. Ouch.

Funny, though, I had no trouble walking. The hole was low on the knee so it only affected me when I bent it by over about 30 degrees. Stairs were hard, ladders were almost impossible and cycling . . . well I had to stop riding last August.

The surgery is arthroscopic and isn’t major, relatively speaking. The surgeon cleans up the crappy hole in the cartilage and does a lateral release – cutting part of the connective tissue that holds the kneecap in place (the lateral retinaculum) allowing it to slide into its normal resting place. Finally, and this is the gross part, the surgeon drills or digs a small hole in the femur (a process called microfracturing) to release cells that help the cartilage heal more completely.

About four weeks after surgery, I’ll be getting four weekly injections of Orthovisc, which is made from naturally occurring lubricants found in joints. Apparently, this is injected with a needle the size of an oil well drill bit, but it’s worth manning up because it helps the cartilage heal, adds some lubrication to the beaten up joint and speeds up all-around recovery a good deal.

The prognosis is that it will take me about 4 months to recover enough to get back on my bike for any serious riding – why didn’t I do this in September? One of the advantages in working with a sports medicine specialist is that they are very sensitive to their patient’s addiction to their activities and work to get them back in action faster. Given that, I’m hoping my doc works with me to cut some time off the textbook recovery period.

Update(s): when I searched the web for information about this surgery and, more importantly, the recovery from it, there was very little to be found. So, for those of you have stumbled across this as a result of a search for information, I’m going to keep a brief digest of what my recovery was like. As usual, your mileage may vary.

  • One day after surgery – Ouch! Anesthesia and anesthetic are all gone and being very much missed. Like an idiot, I didn’t take the pain medicine (percocet, in my case) soon enough or frequently enough. This is the only day I had to take any though. 24 hours after surgery, the pain was manageable. I’m a wimp, too.
  • Two days after surgery – Still a lot of swelling and very stiff. Moving around on crutches a bit. Started using a CPM machine to exercise the knee. Doesn’t seem like it would help, but it does. Start doing basic exercises with short range of motion. Painful.
  • One week after surgery – I still can’t bend my leg much. After using crutches for about 4 days, I moved onto a cane. Doctor says I don’t need it, nurse and physical therapist insist I do. So, I compromise. I overuse it and the knee remains really swollen. Sleeping is hard, every move causes me to wake up.
  • Ten days after surgery – See the surgeon. Have the stitches removed (no bleeding at any time – the holes are very small). He says my knee is abnormally swollen. I probably used it too much. Gave me a few more exercises and tells me that I can do the PT work myself if I like, which I do. He tells me “full” recovery will take 4-6 months. Longer than his original estimate. I start walking without any support (cane/crutches) all the time. I crank the CPM machine to 80-degrees of motion.
  • Two weeks after surgery – Still discouragingly stiff and swollen. Doing loads of basic leg lifts and such and spending >2hrs/day in the CPM machine.  I’m getting around better and can even climb (not descend) stairs a little. Interesting how the basic act of releasing my leg in the backswing of a stride is stiff and painful. I can walk, but with a stiff leg. Sleeping remains difficult since I toss and turn, waking up each time.
  • Three weeks after surgery – Remains stiff and swollen. The swelling is certainly less severe than right after surgery, although it’s hard to tell if it’s better than a week ago. Spending >2hrs/day in the CPM machine and another hour/day “exercising” and icing. Also, added a 20 minute session/day on the elliptical – almost no resistance. Like last week, releasing my leg on the backswing of my stride is stiff and painful. Getting little sleep because every toss and turn wakes me up with some pain.
  • Four weeks after surgery – I could feel enough improvement that I abused it. I ended up standing and walking a lot this week. At times, I could walk with almost no limp, but ended up paying for that in the last couple of days. No real pain, just a bit stiff on the backswing of the leg, I can go up small flights of stairs with almost no pain, but can only go down stairs one at a time – always leading with my bad leg. Still using the CPM machine, now at 100-degrees and I’ve turned up the resistance on the elliptical, although not the time. Sleeping is no longer a huge problem, although I still end up waking up because I bump or twist something during the night.
  • Five weeks after surgery – I still have a lump on the outside of my knee that is completely numb to the touch, but doesn’t disturb me otherwise. I think this is swelling around where the muscle holding the patella was cut. That’s also where I feel the tightness in the backswing of my leg, which continues. Once I get loose, I can walk without much of a limp. Climbing stairs has gotten a bot easier and I can even gingerly descend stairs with both legs. I’ve increased both my time and resistance on the elliptical and have even gone for a couple of mile walk. The knee makes a lot of crunchy noises, though, which is freaking me out a bit.
  • Nine weeks after surgery – Fast forward . . . another appointment with the surgeon, only my second one since the surgery. He’s pretty casual. I called a couple of weeks ago because of the crunching sounds coming from my knee when I bent it. He said, “nothing to worry about.” That didn’t help. They did, however, mostly go away over the following weeks. I still have the tightness where the band was cut, although it’s not as bad. I stopped using the CPM machine at the 6-week mark, per doctor’s orders. I don’t think it was doing too much for me anyway. Going up many stairs brings about a little pain. If I hadn’t had surgery, it might not even register too much. Going downstairs is quite a bit different, although I can do it much better and with less pain than just a couple of weeks ago. At this visit to the doctor, he told me to start physical therapy, which I will this week. He told me it will be another four weeks until I should even sit on a bike. I’ve upped both time and resistance on the elliptical and am on it five times per week. I’ve also restarted weight training – upper body only, of course. Things are getting better, although much more slowly than forecasted by me or the surgeon. My biggest concern is that there is no indication yet that the surgery actually fixed the original problem. There are other pains and stiffness that mask the pain from the injury.
  • Sixteen weeks after surgery – well, I’ve officially blown off the cycling season, there’s no way I can ride a bike . . . at all. Things are better, I guess, but they’re not very good. Stairs remain a problem, especially down. I’ve been doing physical therapy now for almost 6 full weeks. I’m stronger, for sure, but not in much less pain. The pain is different most of the time and I still feel a lot of numbness on the outside of my knee – the other side from the injury. I have to think it’s surgically related. Probably from the band that was cut holding down the patella. Stretching like a maniac helps, but disappointingly little. I can’t squat down and if I do work my way to the floor, I can’t get up. While supporting my weight, even half of it, I can’t bend my knee more than about 50-degrees. Without weight, I can bend it all the way. Very discouraging.
 March 5th, 2011  
 Cycling, Health and Fitness  

The History of Computers [ala Techking]

This is great (thanks Techking for creating it and @djilk for pointing it out). A humbling look at where computers started and how they advanced. There are many missing, including some of the more recent super-duper computers produced to work on some nasty computational problems and a couple built to become chess-masters and Jeopardy winners, but the key ones are pretty much all here.


Check out other cool infographics on Techking.

 February 28th, 2011  
 1 Comment

Gadget Review – Fitbit

Image representing Fitbit as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

What’s a FitBit? It’s a tiny device that you clip to your clothing or carry in your pocket that measures the number of steps you take (really, the movement of your torso), and estimates the number of calories you burn during the day. When plugged into its little base station which is connected to your computer, the data is uploaded to a web site for storage, display, comparison and to be combined with manually entered data about your non-measured activities and what you ate. It only costs $99 and is an incredibly nice piece of engineering and packaging. While the company has sold a load of them, it seems that the early adopters are, not surprisingly, geeks, data junkies and fitness-o-philes. I think I may reside in all three camps and as such, was a relatively early adopter.

I’ve been carrying a FitBit with me for the last 8 months. It is so small and light and the battery lasts so long, that I often forget I have it with me (as I did this week when I went through one of those airport x-ray vision machines used to see if you’ve recently changed your underwear with it on me). Usually, I’m disappointed in the calorie consumption it reports at the end of the day through it’s small display, but that’s the point. It kicks me in the ass so I do less sitting on it. It’s not a FitBit issue, it’s a personal one.

As with many such measuring devices, the absolute data is less important than the relative data. If I consistently burn 2,500 calories per day, I know that a lard-retaining 1,900 calories expended in a day is going to get me in trouble. Especially if I have several of those back-to-back.

When I ordered my FitBit, it was DOA. Well, it wasn’t entirely dead, there was a bunch of garbage on the little on-board display. Resetting (by sticking a paperclip into the tiny hole in the bottom of the base station, FWIW) didn’t help. I sent an email to support which, after sending me a long email asking me to try everything I had already tried, RMA’d the device and sent me a new one. Pretty easy and the right way of doing it.

The only downside to the device is in what it can’t do – measure the activity that doesn’t involve moving my torso. You can do bench presses all day long and register nothing north of the number of calories you would be burning if sleeping. What I’m really waiting for is something that does real time blood testing and can capture all muscle movement and extent. Non-invasively, of course. Until then, though, the FitBit tells me an awful lot about what I’ve been doing and sets the stage for thinking more about healthy living.

 February 25th, 2011  
 Health and Fitness  

Handling a “No”

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time playing angel investor over the years which has given me the chance to meet many great entrepreneurs. In general, when an entrepreneur contacts me, he/she is looking for money, advice or both. Generally speaking, I make a quick determination if the people are some that I might be interested in working with; whether or not the idea is something that I can actually add some value too (an increasingly small set of things, as it turns out); and, oh yeah, whether or not I can make any money by investing in it, if that’s appropriate. About a third of the time, I immediately say “no,” because it doesn’t match up with any of my basic criteria.

The other two thirds of the time, I spend more time with the entrepreneur to understand the business as best I can and as quickly as possible. After 35+ angel investments, I should be able to determine the value of a startup quickly, yet, it doesn’t actually seem to be getting any easier. Or, at least, I’m not getting any better at it. Of course, the amount of time I spend coming up to speed with the team depends on my interest and varies quite a lot. In the end, the vast majority of people I talk with ultimately get a “no.” That’s just how the numbers work out. I can’t invest in everything.

In almost all cases – there are those who take a “no” like I said their mother is ugly and are complete assholes about the situation – I do my best to be supportive and helpful in my rejection, explain why I’m not interested and almost always try to connect the entrepreneur up with someone who might be better equipped to help or might be interested in investing. But, it’s still a rejection and it’s tough to take. It’s in how the entrepreneur handles this situation, that I learn more about them than during any of my previous discussions.

Once in a great while, someone will hang up on me or clumsily end a face-to-face meeting with some poor excuse. More likely and if email has been the primary form of communication, I might never get a response to my “no,” which is also a non-response to my offer to hook the person up with another potential advisor or investors. Sometimes, the entrepreneur digs in his or her heals and pushes even harder, thinking that they can force me into changing my mind. Often, pleading, in various forms, takes place.

I’m here to tell you folks, this is all bad. If you’re an entrepreneur (or any one doing business), you should treat each relationship you establish as a long-term, important one. You just never know when you’re going to need it. Sometimes you need it and you don’t even know it – like when another investor calls for an opinion or a reference. I don’t hold a grudge, but I’m not shy about sharing my thoughts about things, especially with people I have an established relationship with (there’s some recursion here, I think).

I’m making it sound like very few handle the situation well. Many actual do handle themselves wisely and professionally.  What do I mean by this?

  • They politely ask “why?” to fully understand my decision without trying to convince me otherwise
  • They thank me for the time I invested and for my consideration of the team and idea
  • They usually ask if I mind if they can engage me for advice or guidance in the future or if they can send updates on what is going on with their new baby.

Yes, for the most part, it’s political and maybe even pandering. It’s also smart. Some people handle it so well, I question my decision not to get involved. Handling it well gives me the impression that the entrepreneur might have the right stuff to be a great CEO. I’ll take that over a great idea any day (although both is nice, obviously). Even if I don’t get involved, that’s what I’m going to tell others when asked.

I’m not trying to be the Emily Post of startup venture engagements here. But handling this basic stuff right can get you very far. There will be MANY more “no’s” in your future. They are always harder to handle than “yes’s.” If you can handle them well, you’ll demonstrate what you can do when things are not so good. A much more important skill than what to do when things are going well. And that’ll get around.

 February 22nd, 2011  
 Investing, Startups  

You Gotta Pay to Play . . . Or Not

Last week, I wrote a post about the right of an investor to maintain their percentage ownership in a company through the pro rata rights provision often found in investment agreements. In that post, I referenced another provision that often crops up, pay-to-play. In its most basic form, the pay-to-play term causes an investor to lose certain antidilution protections if they don’t participate in later financings at a pro rata level. This loss can take a variety of forms. These range from a conversion of all the shares purchased by the investor in previous rounds from preferred to common (ouch!) to the loss of the right to participate in future rounds (a mild spanking).

I get why certain investors want this term in there – if a co-investor is not going to continue to invest in the company in subsequent rounds, why should they retain the rights and privileges of a holder of preferred stock? The same rights and privileges that investors investing their pro rata portion.

I understand the logic, but as an angel investor, I find little to like about the provision in virtually any form. If I, as an investor, supported the company early on and took on all the risks involved with an early investment, why should I ever lose the rights that came along with assuming that risk? That was the exchange at the time – money for some ownership and rights associated with the form of ownership. In my opinion, no future acts (legal, up-and-up ones, that is) should cause the retraction of rights I already have (superseding those rights is topic for another day).

When I invest in a company, I always reserve some money for the next round. Since I generally invest in startups, I consider what a reasonable jump up in the A round valuation might be and hold enough in reserve to maintain my pro rata share in the company through that round. If the A round is a large – dollar-wise – or there are rounds beyond the A round that I haven’t reserved for, I can easily find myself in the position of not having the funds needed to maintain my share. A pay-to-play provision, in these cases, would cause a draconian (yeah, I’m biased) removal of the rights I had already paid for through investment and risk. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I could whine or cry and say that such terms are unreasonable or unfair, but that would be stupid. In the end, I can only do one thing when I run across a pay-to-play provision in  a term sheet, treat it as a big negative in my investment decision. I strictly stay away from deals that go as far as converting the preferred shares of those who don’t invest their pro rata percentage in future rounds to common. I treat as a negative, but don’t always walk away from deals with such provisions that are less onerous. Like I said, I understand why big, later stage investors want this term in the agreement. From my point of view, though, it punishes those who took the biggest risk when the company needed it most.

 November 6th, 2010  
 Investing, Startups, VC  

Dual Bolt Pattern Wheels

Until my new wheels and tires for my truck arrived from Tire Rack yesterday, I didn’t even know that dual bolt pattern wheels were made. The bolt pattern for a wheel is the layout of the lugs (the bolts) that protrude from the car’s hub and are used to attach the wheel to the car. For a variety of reasons, there are no standard bolt patterns. In fact, there are a huge number of different bolt patterns for wheels. When buying aftermarket wheels, it’s very important to get the correct bolt pattern, or else the wheel won’t fit on the hub.

IMG_2019-800x600To make a wheel fit on more vehicles, aftermarket wheel manufacturers sometimes, apparently, drill two sets of bolt patterns in their wheels (cheaper wheels, like I purchased). See the picture on the left (click to enlarge). After seeing this dual bolt pattern on my new wheels, my first thought was that there must be a structural issue with having that much open space next to the bolts. So I hit the web, but couldn’t find anything on failing wheels as a result of having 2X the number of bolt holes.

While trying to mount the wheels, though, I discovered the real problem with dual bolt patterns – tolerances are tight (there’s no play in the bolt hole and the inside edge isn’t beveled to make threading the bolt through the hole easier) and aligning the wheel to the bolt pattern is significantly harder. The difficulty factor is almost assuredly amplified by the number of lugs that your car has per hub. My truck has 6, making 12 bolt holes in each wheel. Aligning six lugs all at the same time without any play is a challenge. Even further, the tire/wheel combination is about 30 pounds – just not an easy one person job while trying to fine tune the placement of the wheel.

IMG_2016-800x600All this made an hour-long job take about 4 hours (Bower Factor of 4). Some of that was learning the process, for sure, but it still took a long time and that was in my garage with pneumatic and electric tools. I can’t even begin to think how miserable a job this would be on the side of the road in the rain. I think I’m going to keep a factory wheel as my spare.

 October 30th, 2010  
 Stuff with a Motor