Ctrl+Alt+Compete Documentary

Last year while I was at SXSW, I stopped in to do an interview for a documentary film project called Ctrl+Alt+Compete, produced by Ten100 in partnership with Microsoft Corporation. Some background info and a clip of my interview has been posted on the Ctrl+Alt+Compete website. There’s some great interviews up on the site, which I encourage checking out. And if you just want to skip straight to me, here I am:

Boulder Tech Stars Application Season Underway

As many of you know, I’m a mentor and an investor in TechStars.  It’s application season for TechStars Boulder right now, and Managing Director Nicole Glaros has planned some fun stuff coming up to make it easy to get your questions answered and to apply.

Founder Dating, Feb 9th at 5:30pm.  If you want to start your own company but lack a co-founder, this is a great place to come meet people.  RSVP here.

Happy Hour, February 23rd at 6pm.  If you’re not sure if the program is for you, or you know you want to apply but just have questions, this is a great chance to come meet the staff, mentors, and alumni.  RSVP here.

Early applications close on 2/26 with final applications ending on 3/16.  Click here more information on application FAQs.

American Censorship Day: Stop Protect-IP and SOPA

Congress is trying to break the internet.

While I mean for the above sentence to be provocative, I’m not really indulging in hyperbole.

Please join me and my partners at Foundry Group in participating in American Censorship day tomorrow, Wednesday 11/16/11. There are two disturbing and potentially quite damaging bills making their way through Congress: the Protect IP Act (PIPA – S.968) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA – H.R.3261).

Like most legislation, neither bill actually does what their titles claim they do, and both basically amount to online censorship. These bills were fast-tracked through Congress with the support of Hollywood and Big Media, and stand a very real chance of getting passed unless members of Congress hear from their constituents.

Numerous organizations that support free speech and a free and open internet have come to oppose these bills, including the EFF, the Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge, Demand Progress, Fight For the Future, Participatory Politics Foundation and Creative Commons. They’ve organized tomorrow’s American Censorship Day, which occurs tomorrow and will protest these bills. If you run a website or blog, check out the American Censorship site to see how you can participate.

I encourage delving into the full text of these bills, but if you lack the time (or intestinal fortitude) to wade through them, here’s a short video that summarizes the potential impact and second order effects of this truly bad legislation:

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

My partner Brad Feld has written a good post on this topic, as has Fred Wilson, who appropriately writes that these bills undermine the architecture of the internet and threaten to destroy the innovation and entrepreneurship occurring on the internet, one of the few bright spots in our nation’s economy, and certainly where the future lies.

Please join me and my partners in speaking out against these terrible pieces of legislation.

Protect Your Domain

We had a (thankfully brief) scare in our portfolio last week: one of our companies temporarily lost control of its domain. An overseas third-party “bad actor” was able to convince the company’s domain name registrar to transfer control of the company’s domain without the company’s knowledge. Fortunately, our company was able to regain control of its domain before any actual changes to its DNS settings were made.

After speaking to some people in the network security business and polling our own portfolio, it turns out that this sort of occurrence is far more common than one might suspect. In today’s world, a company’s domain name is literally its crown jewels. If a nefarious party gains control of a company’s domain, the potential damage is massive and it could literally destroy a company’s business if a cyber criminal were to implement a large scale phishing attack or simply shut down the company’s site. Every minute of downtime equates to lost revenue and an erosion of customer trust.

To further underscore the vulnerabilities around DNS, I noticed this morning an article on hackers in Brazil using a technique called DNS cache poisoning attacks on major ISPs in Brazil to redirect users headed to brand-name sites like Google, YouTube and Hotmail to malware-infected sites. DNS is crucially important to the functioning of the net, but unfortunately it remains vulnerable to various exploits, including the hardest to eradicate, “social engineering”.

Some attacks (like DNS cache poisoning) are not anything a single company can protect against, but there are internal controls and procedures a company can put into place to make their domains safer. One simple example is to conduct an audit of all your domains: are they controlled by a single individual within the company? Are there policies and procedures in place around renewing domain names, controlling DNS updates, etc.?

Many times, founders buy domains on their personal credit cards early in the life of their company. Often, this is forgotten about until there is some reason to make a change to DNS settings. Clearly this is an untenable position — a founder could depart the company, have their credit card on file with the registrar expire, simply miss the renewal emails, get hit buy a bus, etc., leaving the company scrambling to deal with this after the fact.

While many early stage companies are a bit allergic to “big company” process and procedures, this is one area where every company should exert some process discipline to make sure domains are controlled by the company, that the contact email addresses filed with the registrar are carefully monitored, that automation is in place to detect unexpected transfers of domain, etc.

I’ll follow up in a later post with a more exhaustive list of best practices around domain name management, but in the meantime take a moment to reflect on how your company controls its domains and whether your internal safeguards are sufficient to prevent what could be a catastrophic loss.

Update: turns out my partner Seth Levine also posted about this incident this morning. Read more here.

Goodbye Steve Jobs

I’ve been very distracted and unproductive today since reading yesterday’s news of Steve Jobs’ death, on my iPhone, of course. While not at all unexpected, it still somehow felt quite sudden to me, and I’ve been spending my time since I heard the news watching the amazing outpouring of emotion and reflection on his life and his impact on the world in my news feeds on Twitter and Facebook. He was an icon, and I’ve certainly haven’t felt this emotional at the passing of a public figure before. I guess he was my generation’s John Lennon or even John F. Kennedy, but I’d argue his ongoing impact on the world is broader reaching and more profound than either of those two.

I never met the man – the closest I got was brushing past him in the tight aisles of the Whole Foods Market in Palo Alto, but still I felt like I knew him (clearly I was not the only one) and I was inspired by him as an entrepreneur, a product visionary, a technologist, a showman, a marketer, a designer, an artist, a filmmaker, a CEO, and a fearless icon of what’s possible when you have an unswerving commitment to excellence in all things.

While I doubt I’m adding anything fundamentally new here, I do feel compelled to add my views to the torrent of thoughts that have been flowing since October 5th’s news.

My first Apple computer was the Mac SE 30 that my parents bought me (thanks Mom & Dad!) when I started school at Stanford in 1989. Prior to that, I taught myself to program BASIC and learned about hexadecimal notation, shape tables and basic 6502 assembly code on the Franklin Ace 1000 my parents bought when I was in junior high school, which was an Apple ][ clone. Since then, I’ve owned dozens of Apple devices, and take quiet pride in the fact that all my partners at Foundry Group now use Macintosh computers, which was not the case when I moved from California to Boulder, CO to help get Foundry Group off the ground. Happily, they all freely admit their computing lives have become dramatically simpler since they made the switch.

His incredible accomplishments are covered in detail all over the web, but they bear mentioning here, albeit briefly. He started the PC revolution from a Palo Alto garage. He brought the mouse/windows GUI paradigm to the masses with the Macintosh. He ushered in the desktop printing revolution by adopting Adobe’s Postscript technology in the Apple LaserWriter. The Macintosh was long the platform of choice in the world of professional audio and video. After getting kicked out of his own company, he left to create NeXT, which ultimately became the foundation of Mac OSX and brought (stealthily) UNIX into the lives of millions of consumers. He transformed Hollywood and computer animation with his rescue/purchase of Pixar. He mainstreamed portable digital audio music players with the launch of the iPod and transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer electronics company. He brought the music industry into the digital age with the iTunes Music Store and made his company a force to be reckoned with in the digital media landscape as the largest online retailer of music.

Amazingly, at this point, the pace of disruptive technologies and products that came out of Apple accelerated. The iPhone launched, breaking the wireless carriers’ stranglehold control over phone hardware and software, unleashing a huge amount of innovation that the carriers had been preventing, which not only enable Apple to succeed in this market but also paved the way for the success of Android. The iPhone was unlike any smartphone yet seen, and as Mark Andreessen has said, it was as if it had dropped through a wormhole from five years in the future. Competitors like RIM actually reacted to the launch of the iPhone in disbelief and denied that it could possibly do what Jobs claimed in his unveiling of the original iPhone. And while Jobs & Co didn’t envision the potential of an app ecosystem on the initial iPhone, they were smart enough to recognize the obvious demand as developers and end-users started jail-breaking iPhones, and they moved to open up the system and allow third-party developers a seamless and lucrative way to make their apps available to a huge audience of willing customers. The iOS app ecosystem is now a profoundly important part of today’s technology landscape and unleashed a new wave of innovation and investment opportunity.

And, finally, the iPad. I will admit that this was the product launch I was most dubious about. Even as an Apple fanboy, I was not convinced the world needed a device category between smartphones and laptops. I was skeptical and thought the iPad might wind up a jackalope-type product that didn’t fit any real market need. Of course, my family now owns three iPads, and I use the device daily. Once again, Jobs’ instincts and “no focus groups” orthodoxy nailed it and created a hit product which established a new category, one in which Apple is waiting for a truly worthy competitive product to emerge, even after they launched their second-gen iPad 2. What’s the next act? Maybe the rumored Apple Television will one day emerge – if any company can rethink the fundamental challenges around the living room “lean back” remote-control user experience, it is Apple.

In the end, a few core principles guided his approach to the world, which made him perhaps the greatest CEO of all time and brought Apple to its current position as the most valuable technology company it the world. Steve elevated Design (with a capital D) to a core value in all Apple products and brought beauty to the previously often ugly world of technology. He focused relentlessly on user-centric design and understood the value of editing a product down to his essence, and that choosing what to remove from a product was at least as important as choosing what to put in. He had the courage to cannibalize his own successful products by introducing newer models at that obsoleted the old at the height of their popularity. And he actively resisted dogmatic thought. Apple is the only truly vertically integrated consumer electronics company out there: they design their own chips, their own hardware, do their own industrial design, build their own firmware and software, and created an ecosystem of services surrounding their devices. It is because of this that they have been able to design such elegant products that no competitor has been able to touch. Yet, particularly in Apple’s darkest days, conventional wisdom said that Apple was failing because of its vertical integration. They were failing because they hadn’t left the chip design to Intel, the OS to Microsoft, the hardware to the likes of Dell and the software to 10,000 independent ISVs. Apple’s current market dominance must have been sweet vindication of Jobs’ long-view thinking and core beliefs.

Jobs was a true iconoclast and his impact will be felt for years to come. The world and the future won’t be the same without him shaping it. I’ll miss you Steve.

As a final note, I leave you with Steve’s now famous (and perhaps best ever) commencement speech he gave at Stanford in 2005:

Foundry Group’s First Music Video: I’m a VC

My partners and I have been cooking up this video over the summer, and we’re finally ready to release it to the world. Jason and Brad recently released a book called Venture Deals, and Jason decided that releasing a music video was the best way to market the book. (Isn’t that obvious?)

Jason (my bandmate for over a decade) wrote the music and lyrics for this (very) tongue-in-cheek song, and I have to say, it is rather catchy. Despite my general skepticism about parody, Jason’s songwriting skills won me over.

After he put the instrumental tracks together without touching a single real instrument, thanks to the power of Apple’s GarageBand, we headed to Jason’s recording studio, where Jason laid down the lead vocals and the rest of us laid down the backing vocals. Then we proceeded to shoot the video on location in Boulder during a day-long photo shoot in late June, also under the direction of Jason “Auteur” Mendelson. I have to say, I think Seth steals the show with his beard and blue suit.

Hope you enjoy it. Here it is:

If you’ve read this far, you might even want to read the lyrics. Here they are:

I’m a VC

Words & Music by Jason A. Mendelson © 2011

You know, I just want to tell you. Tell you.
It’s been great gettin’ to know a little about you. About you.
And I wonder, should we be together?
Should we commit to each other for today and forever? Forever.

Hey, you’ve been on my mind
Been at least a few hours, since I’ve seen your slides Since I met you at the Rosewood, or was it South By? Time for us to talk, about our future lives

I know you, you want me, I might want you too
Let’s share your deepest secrets, and find if I can trust in you
I like you, just maybe, you’ve got a clue
Meet my partners on a Monday, we’ll see if they can dig you too

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
I drive around a Prius and I meet over sushi I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
It takes more than Powerpoint slides to impress me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

Hey, will you ever learn?
It’s all about the feelings, not the legal terms When you mentioned NDA, I got concerned Don’t want to fall in love and then get burned

Twenty pre? I can’t believe, you think that’s cheap
For a company you started with your dog last week
Let’s back up, let’s do Buck’s, I’ll wear my favorite khakis You can buy the lattes, and we’ll climb under the term sheets

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
I’m the guy people stand in line to meet me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
Don’t go with friends and family ‘cause you complete me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

Series A. I like what I see
Series B. You’re the one for me Series C. Don’t dilute me
Series D. Starting to get cold feet Series E. Oh no
Series F. Where’s my IPO? Series G. Gettin’ low
Series H. Time to go home

Hey, do you feel it baby?
Because you know VCs, I’m a definite maybe
Sorry I’ve been gone, I’ve been a little crazy
At the end of the day, it’s all about the Hamiltons, baby

I know you, you seem great, I love what you’re debuting
But I’ve got so many other deals that I’m now reviewing
It’s not you, it’s just me, I’ve got so many wooing
Like the Chinese knock-off of what your team is so good doing

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
Can’t take a leak without people who pitch me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
With my Wonder Twin powers no f*cker can beat me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
Stanford, Harvard educated, even MIT I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

‘Cause I’m a VC, I’m a VC
If you need to find me check out Facebook, LinkedIn or tweet me I’m a VC, oh ho
Who are you?

Words, Links, Likes and Shares: The Evolution of Relevance

While the dustup over Bing’s possible appropriation of Google’s long-tail search results is presently occupying the attention of the world of search, I thought I’d take a step back and offer a longer-term historical perspective about an aspect of search that fascinates me: namely the evolution of search algorithms to adopt ever greater amounts of human-generated input into their calculation of relevancy.

Last September, Facebook began including heavily “Liked” items in their search results, and Bing followed suit in December. While this news itself is now a few months old, it got me thinking about how the methods used to determine relevance have changed since the era of web search began. The inclusion of “likes” as a measure of relevancy represents another chapter in the evolution of the various techniques that have been employed to determine relevance ranking in search results.

The arc of relevancy’s story can be traced along one dimension by observing the amount of human input that is incorporated into the algorithm that determines the relevance ranking of search results.

Early search engines relied primarily on the words in each page (and some fancy math) to determine a page’s relevance to a query. In this case, there is one human (the author of that particular web page) “involved” in determining the page’s relevance to a search.

When we launched the Excite.com web search engine in October 1995, we had an index that contained a whopping 1.5 million web pages, a number that seemed staggering at the time, though the number of pages Google now indexes is at least five orders of magnitude larger.

Excite’s method for determining which search results were relevant was based entirely upon the words in each web page. We used some fairly sophisticated mathematics to determine how to stack rank each document’s relevancy to a particular search. This method worked fairly well for a time, when searching just a few tens of millions of pages, but as the size of our index grew, the quality of our search results began to suffer. The other first-gen search engines like Lycos, Infoseek and AltaVista suffered similar problems. Too much chaff, not enough wheat.

Enter Google. Google’s key insight was that the words in a web page weren’t sufficient for determining the relevance of search results. Google’s PageRank algorithm tracked the links in each web page and recognized that each of those links in a web page represented votes for other web pages, and that measuring these votes could help determine the relevance of search results, and do so dramatically better than cranking out complex math calculations based only on the words in the document alone.

Simply put, Google allowed the author of any web page to “like” any other web page simply by linking to it. So instead of a single page’s author being the sole human involved in determining relevancy, all of a sudden everyone authoring web pages got to vote. Overlaying a human filter on top of the basic inverted-index search algorithm created a sea-change in delivering relevant information to the users seeking it. And this insight (coupled with the adoption of pay-per-click advertising) turned Google into the juggernaut it became.

While Google’s algorithm expanded the universe of humans contributing to the relevancy calculation dramatically from a single author of a single web page to all the authors of web pages, it hadn’t fully democratized the web. Only content publishers (who had the technical resources and know-how) had the means to vote. The 90%+ of users online who were not creating content still had no say in relevancy.

Fast forward several years to the meteoric rise of Facebook. Arguably, Facebook’s rise is largely attributable to the launch of the newsfeed feature as well as the Facebook API, which opened the floodgates for third-party developers and brought a rich ecosystem of applications and new functionality to Facebook. After reaching well over half a billion users, Facebook unleashed a new powerful feature that may ultimately challenge Google in its ability to deliver relevant data to users: the “Like” button.

With over two million sites having installed the Like button as of September 2010, billions of items on and off Facebook have been Liked. In the early Google era, only those people with the ability to author a web page (a relatively small club in the late ‘90s) had the ability to “like” other pages (by linking to them).

Facebook’s Like button today enfranchises over half a billion people to vote for pages simply by clicking. This reduces the voting/liking barrier rather dramatically and brings the wisdom of the crowd to bear on an unprecedented scale. And beyond simple volume, it enables the “right” people to vote. Having your friends’ votes count juices relevancy to a whole new level.

A related behavior to clicking the Like button is content sharing, which is prevalent on both Facebook and Twitter. Social network “content referral” traffic in the form of URLS in shares and tweets in users’ newsfeeds is now exceeding Google search as a traffic source for many major sites. Newsfeeds are now on equal footing with SERPs in terms of their importance as a traffic source.

Not only are destination sites seeing link shares become a first-class source of traffic, but clearly users themselves are spending much more time in their newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter than they do in the search box and search-results pages. Social networks’ sharing and liking gestures have resulted in an unexpected emergent property — users’ newsfeeds have become highly personalized content filters that are in some sense crowdsourced, but are perhaps more accurately described “clansourced” or “cohortsourced” since the crowd doing the sourcing for each user is hand-picked.

Beyond liking and sharing in the spectrum of human involvement is perhaps a move to a more labor intensive gesture: curation. Human-curated search results (aided, of course, by algorithms) are the premise behind Blekko, a new search engine focused on enhancing search results through curation. Making a dent in Google’s search hegemony is a tall order indeed, but my guess is that if anyone succeeds, it will be through a fundamentally new approach to search, and likely one that involves a more people-centric approach. And Google certainly faces a challenge as content farms and the like fill up the index with spam that is hard to root out algorithmically. For a cogent description of this problem, just ask Paul Kedrosky about dishwashers and the ouroboros.

One thing seems clear: the web’s ability to deliver relevant content to users relies on ever-sophisticated algorithms that not only leverage raw computational power but also increasingly weave sophisticated forms of feedback from a growing sample-size of the humans participating in the creation and consumption of digital media online.

Do More Faster

My partner Brad Feld and TechStars CEO David Cohen just wrote a book called Do More Faster, which will be released in a week or so, and is presently available for pre-order on Amazon. In keeping with the title of the book, they have put together a compelling book in record time; they did so by leveraging a network of contributing authors, including yours truly.

My chapter is entitled “Use Your Head, then Trust Your Gut”, and in it I reflect on the fact that founders of technology companies in particular have a huge amount of data at their disposal: real-time sales information, user behavior analytics and a huge amount of advice coming at them from board members, investors, advisors and countless other humans who have often strong opinions on how a start-up should be run.

One of the great balancing acts an entrepreneur must perform is synthesizing all of these inputs (many of which are conflicting) and then charting a decisive course of action. When done well, this involves a blend of art and science and qualitative and quantitative thinking.<

In addition to my small contribution to this book, Brad and David assembled dozens of chapters from mentors, company founders and others involved in TechStars into seven themes: Idea and Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fundraising, Legal and Structure, and Work and Life Balance.

This book is a must-read for anyone involved in the creation of early-stage technology startups, so head over to Amazon and order a copy now.

Disk is the New Tape

I came across this gem at Data Center Knowledge, mentioning Twitter’s plans to move into their own data center, having outgrown the managed hosting services they use at NTT America. The article includes a great slide deck by Twitter’s John Adams entitled Scaling Twitter, and was presented at this week’s Chirp 2010 conference, which, sadly, I was unable to attend. There’s a ton of great stuff in here detailing some of the techniques, tools and technologies (including current darlings like Kestrel and Cassandra) that Twitter has used to scale their service in the face of 752% growth in 2008 followed by growth in 2009, a feat somewhat akin to upgrading a jet engine in flight.

But my favorite slide in the presentation is the one entitled “Disk is the new Tape”, which refers to the heavy I/O challenges that social graph applications face. Disk is just way too slow for most Web2.0 applications, which means apps need lots of RAM and must focus on techniques that minimize disk access at all costs in order to provide reasonable (sub 500ms) response times.

Clearly smart software like Kestrel and Cassandra, which are built from the ground up to run in highly distributed environments have enabled the building of apps at internet scale, but it does also suggest that server (and data center) architectures must evolve over time too — moving hard drives out of the critical path (perhaps transitioning to SSDs for non-volatile storage as costs fall?) and thereby relegating hard disks to offline archival storage, a fate met by tape drives years ago.

An Audio Engineering Arthur C. Clarke Moment

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, today I read about a new audio editing that performs magic: Melodyne Editor.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a guitarist and hobbyist recording engineer. I built out a ProTools HD recording studio in my converted garage in Portola Valley, CA back in the day, and my band Soul Patch recorded our two albums there, which we released on our label, Toothless Monkey Music, and numerous other albums were recorded there by my band-mate Nick Peters, who now runs his own label and studio (Bodydeep Music) out in Redwood City, CA.

Please pardon what follows – it is a bit of audio geekery, but anyone who is even superficially familiar with the capabilities of modern digital recording systems will likely be slack-jawed in disbelief when I explain what Melodyne Editor can do. (I have to give a tip of the hat to Thomas Dolby — I’ve been a long-time reader of his blog (and fan of his music), and it was his blog post that made me aware of this amazing tool.)

Anyway, all of this background is just to say that I know my way around digital audio and signal processing plugins. I’ve been a long-time fan and user of AutoTune (quite useful for cleaning up “almost right” vocal takes), which, amazingly, can put out-of-tune vocals back in tune. AutoTune is an example of pure technology magic, though some lament the effect it has had on musicianship and vocal performance.

Then, a couple years ago, I began experimenting with a new pitch processing audio editor called Melodyne. Not only did Melodyne offer the ability to correct out-of-tune instruments or vocals, but it broke the audio waveform down into discrete notes that could be slid around in pitch and time using a graphic editor. This took a step beyond AutoTune – not only could you tweak the pitch of a performance, you could actually move the notes around with your mouse in pitch and time. You could literally alter the melody and rhythm of a vocal or instrumental performance by dragging your mouse around. Pretty amazing, right?

Of course, as amazing as these pitch (and time) audio processing tools are, they have a big constraint: they only worked with monophonic material. You needed a track with a single singer on it, or an instrument that only plays one note at a time: this left out most parts performed by pianos, guitars, vocal choirs, a horn section or an entire symphony. Basically if any of the audio in which you wanted to fix pitch problems contained chords (more than one note played simultaneously) on the track, you were out of luck.

The newest version of Melodyne does something most in the audio world have considered impossible: it allows the editing of polyphonic material. You can literally reach inside a guitar track and retune an individual note within a chord. Or find an out-of-tune singer in a group of backup singers and fix just that singer’s out-of-tune note.

This, my friends, is magic. And one step closer to what I’ve long considered my ultimate fantasy audio engineering tool: software that could take a mono or stereo mixdown of a song, and break it out into a multitrack representation of each individual remix. This would allow anyone to take a favorite song, break it into its component parts and build a remix. There are many reasons why this is probably far more difficult than pitch shifting individual notes in harmonic material, but if anyone could pull this off, my bet is on the wizards at Celemony. Wow.

Note: check out this video on Celemony’s website (sorry no embed code) to see what some serious pros (like Herbie Hancock) think about Melodyne. If you watch long enough, you’ll find Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid refers to Arthur C. Clarke famous aphorism as well, which I didn’t discover until after I wrote this post!