Technology

Ignore The Gatekeepers

Photo by Zachary Lisko on Unsplash

Last week, I saw the awesome news that my NYU Grad Film classmates Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are making their next feature. I love their story because it’s so different from what people may consider the “traditional” path in film.

It was the summer of 2012, and most of the class was on draft 63 of their soon-to-be perfect first feature script. But before that, we each planned to submit draft 79 to all the prestigious film labs. There, we would get input from auteurs we admired. Then, we’d make the perfect film, it would open to acclaim at the perfect festival, and get acquired and released nationwide. That was the plan.

That same summer, Charles and Sarah-Violet (SV) had a very different plan. Instead of perfection, they decided to create immediately. They cranked out a feature script. They each borrowed $40K through student loans. Knowing they were on a tight budget, they wrote about a world they knew (deep Brooklyn), with only a small handful of locations (all in NY), and very few characters. They didn’t submit the script to any labs. They didn’t apply for any grants. They did not wait.

They planned the shoot. They cast fantastic actors, some of whom they’d known for years. One of our classmates was the cinematographer.

They shot their feature. They edited their feature.

They did it all on a total of $110K. Tiny, even by indie standards.

One year later, they submitted it to festivals. The movie, Fort Tilden, premiered at SXSW. It won SXSW. And that set SV and Charles on a different trajectory. They were writers on the Netflix show Wet Hot American Summer and now have their own, very successful show on TBS, Search Party.

I share this story to share the power of ignoring gatekeepers. There are a few big steps in making a feature film: write a script, prep and plan the shoot, shoot, edit, release. Every step depends on funding. You could wait for funding at each stage—basically asking for permission from someone else to make your film. Or, you can do what SV and Charles did — make the best movie within the constraint they faced and the funds they were able to access. No waiting, no permission needed.

Don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not an easy or guaranteed path. I spoke with SV recently about her story, and she said, “(Taking out those loans) was still a huge insane risk I wouldn’t exactly recommend for everyone. But it felt right. So I’m always very careful to say, ‘Look, this is how we did it, and it worked out for us. I have some success but I also still have student debt.’ That said, I do NOT regret it. Not everyone would be comfortable with the position I put myself in, but it was right for me. I had a lot of clarity in the process and risking the money didn’t scare me. Waiting years and years to find funding or someone to approve of my voice was a much scarier fate.”

If you follow the SV & Charles model, you will have a real, live product. A product which people can see and enjoy. A product that people can evaluate and say “hey, they won SXSW on a tiny budget.”

Given the choice between being constrained, but still making something, versus waiting for the “ideal” situation, what would you pick? While most of the class was dreaming of the perfect first feature, SV and Charles made their first feature. That was enough to launch them into a world that is very hard to break into.

Breaking into tech is easier because angels and early funders (the gatekeepers) are willing to fund first-time founders. But it’s not always easy to raise your angel or pre-seed round.

Look at the funds and skills that you have. Decide how much risk you want to take — each person has their own comfort level and you should be the one that decides what is best for you. And then, design and build something using your skills and your budget. If you build something people love, you will have a little success. And that little success can propel you onto your next opportunity. And then onto the next opportunity. And each project or startup could get better. The gatekeepers will then come to you (and I say that as a venture investor).

In my film school class, every single person had ambition, most had a great idea. But SV and Charles just did it. And they went from strength to strength. You can, too.

Consumer + Enterprise + Mission

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

My friend Nikhil recently made a great point about how more startups are serving both consumers and enterprises. “The technology world used to clearly segment businesses by consumer or enterprise,” he wrote. “But those lines have been blurring for quite some time. The most interesting companies don’t fit into either bucket.” He cites Zoom, Amazon, PayPal, Notion, and many others as examples of this trend.

I saw this firsthand at eBay. It started as a consumer company, but very soon, two things happened:
1. Sellers on the marketplace realized eBay could morph from a fun side hustle into a profitable main business. Some of these sellers grew into SMBs. The world is full of enterprising people. And when your product encourages them, they will find new and interesting ways to stretch and use it.
2. Businesses realized there were a lot of buyers on eBay. It became an attractive additional storefront for them to sell their wares.

By the time I got there, eBay was already both a consumer (p2p) and a business company (b2c and early signs of b2b).

So, I agree with Nikhil 100% that the next big thing will be both consumer and enterprise. However, I believe there is an even more important lens to evaluate companies: mission.

I think of a company’s mission or purpose as its raison d’etre.

  • Why does the company exist?
  • At scale, what problem does the company solve?
  • If the company solves the problem, does it make our world significantly better?

If your company can answer that final question with a resounding “yes,” you are at a big advantage.

One advantage is that you can hire talent at reasonable rates, because people buy into the mission. Gen Z is the first generation to prioritize purpose over money. If they authentically believe in what they are working towards, their commitment level is incredibly high.

Another advantage of being mission-driven is resilience. All startups hit speed bumps, but with a strong mission and a team of believers, these become easier to weather. The purpose will help guide your team through the hard times.

Finally, customers value mission, too. Millennials and Gen Z care deeply about which brands they patronize. When they see a mission-driven company that aligns with their values, it is much more likely they will form a strong affinity for the brand.

At eBay, employees thought about the mission every day. Last week, I was catching up with a former eBay colleague, and he expressed the desire to be driven by mission again: “I mean, we weren’t working for just any company.” When you’re helping expand access to economic opportunity, and you’re doing that with a great team, it’s a powerful thing (and it’s a ton of fun).

Core, one of our portfolio companies, exemplifies this idea of consumer + enterprise + mission. It’s a mental performance company that encourages meditation. Consumers are adopting it, and companies are buying Core to help their employees find a sense of calm and focus. Their mission, to cement mental performance as a pillar of well-being, gives them an important advantage.

Historically, mission (or purpose) has been sneered at. Investors believed the lack of singular focus on money led to sub-commercial returns and failed startups.

Not us. At Spero, we believe that when you combine a great business model (an absolute must) with a great mission, magic happens. Purpose is not just icing on the cake. When a company, by executing on its core business, makes the world better, that’s a huge win. eBay, Tesla, and WhatsApp are all examples.

Mission/purpose is your secret sauce. It’s your superpower. That’s why I believe the best companies of our generation will be purpose-driven.

Re: Money On The Screen

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com 

What I love most about the newsletter format is that it encourages discussion. In response to my last post, Put The Money On The Screen, a founder emailed me with some points that I want to share and discuss.

The founder rightly pointed out that there’s nuance to the idea of putting the money on the screen. Spending and cost-cutting decisions depend on the stage of the company and the unique circumstances.

Here’s part of what the founder wrote:

The problem with cutting off-screen costs is that the results over time mainly go to investors (because the great majority of the company over time is investor owned), and proportionally less to employees and common shareholders, which are asked to bring the sacrifice. Just be mindful of what asking people to sacrifice means.

This founder was speaking from a personal experience: being asked to take a ridiculously small salary after raising a significant Series A from a top-tier firm. The founder went into debt as a result of this, and it took a long time to recover.

While I haven’t heard both sides of the story, I do think putting a founder in that situation is harsh. VC firms should make sure founders and CEOs aren’t under undue financial stress—it’s in everyone’s self-interest for the CEO to be able to focus on building the company. Additionally, some expenses that might strike VCs as superfluous may be legitimately necessary for team morale or culture. Those are best judged by the company’s leadership.

All of this depends on the stage of the company. At the later stages, the tradeoffs will change. But regardless of stage, employees bear the brunt of putting the money on the screen during tough times. I’ve seen this happen in film, where the writer/director bears the highest cost in “making it happen,” and first-time founders are often in the same situation.

While that’s the nature of the beast, it’s something worth pausing on. It is not always the right decision to cut some “off-screen” costs. The best decisions may emerge when investors and CEOs have honest conversations that recognize the impact and consequences of these decisions.

The Necessity Of Vision

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But in reality, there are hundreds of questions the director has to be able to answer. Many come as they are preparing for the shoot, but things happen, and there are always tradeoffs to be made while they’re on set.

A good director has a point of view on all these questions because she keeps the vision of the film front and center. She knows how every one of these decisions will affect the vision.

Like the director of a film, the CEO is the final arbiter in startup, especially at the early stages. In order to make the multitude of decisions, she needs to have a very clear vision of what she is trying to achieve. Every decision either takes her towards her vision (slightly or bigly) or away from it.

If the vision for what you want to become is muddled, it becomes very hard to make decisions. You always want optionality—to keep all options open, because you don’t know where you are headed.

That is impossible on a film set, because most films are shot in 30 days or less. It’s not impossible in a startup, because you can always defer the decision. But doing so will put the startup at risk of not executing or of muddled execution that leads to failure.

To keep your eyes on the prize, you need to know what the prize looks like and which direction you need to go to find the prize.

Director Ava DuVernay with Cinematographer Bradford Young

You also need to know the fundamental underlying tenets that will help you achieve your goal. For example, at eBay, one unbreakable tenet was always “level playing field”, meaning that every seller, whether a big company or your next-door neighbor, would be subject to the same rules. Another was that eBay would not touch the items, thus keeping it a purely person-to-person marketplace. When opportunities came up, it was easy to evaluate against these (and other core) tenets and determine if they kept us moving towards our vision.

This does not mean that you don’t react to changing circumstances or opportunities. Some of the best scenes or shots on a film set can be the ones where the director decides to improvise on set. She may see an opportunity in a location, in the weather, or in the actors’ mood and try something unscripted. But the reason she can do that is she knows what she wants to achieve and has prepared so well that she has a strong hunch that this improvisation will improve the film.

For a CEO with a big vision, unexpected changes can present an opportunity. With the vision front and center, and all the hard work to understand what moves you towards and away from that vision, you can think of ways to bend and adapt to strengthen the company. Otherwise, you stand the risk of losing what the company is and what it stands for.

Make your vision a touchstone that you come back to often. Make the time to come back to it, refresh it, and let it refresh and reenergize you.

Leading with Truth

To lead through 2020 has been, and will be, a challenge. Yes, 2001 and 2008 happened and were horrible, but this is more sudden, more all-encompassing, and there is the fear of dying.

So, on Friday, we hosted a session with Jerry Colonna and our portfolio CEOs. If you know Jerry, you know that this session was honest, open, and at times emotional. It prompted me to re-read a couple of chapters of his book, “Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up

Two practices for leading in times of uncertainty stood out.

The first is to be open with yourself. To stand still—to take a breath, stop doing, stop acting like it’s all great.

When we stand still, we run the risk of remembering who we are. When we stop the spinning, we run the risk of confronting the fears, the demons who have chased us all our lives. When we stop the bullshitting, the pretending that we’re crushing it, that we’ve got it all figured out, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the realities of all that we carry—the burdens we’re convinced must remain secret to keep us and those we love safe, warm, and happy.

When clients answer the challenge to stand still, stop the spinning, and be with the truth of their existence, they take their seats as warrior CEOs—strong backs and open hearts.

No human being is flawless. At a time like this, let’s stop pretending that just because you have the title CEO, you should appear perfect. Lowering the perfection bar will let you lead with more credibility.

The second, is to be open with others about the situation and what you are dealing with:

When leaders, parents, lovers choose to share the reality of their heart, it gives everyone in their lives the chance to know them, to hold them—to trust each other.

Every employee in your company knows the reality of the world outside. And in all likelihood, they know the reality with the company more than you give them credit for. Why not tell the truth? If you have to do pay cuts, tell them why. If you have to do layoffs, cut deep, cut once, and tell them why. If you are at risk of not being able to raise during this time (very few will have it easy), tell them why.

Of course you don’t want to overshare or place your anxiety on your employees. But instead, tell them why you believe in your company and how you are planning to get the organization through this phase.

The call to lead well is a call to be brave and to say true things. To say to our colleagues, we’re scared, but we still believe.

This is not easy. To get to the other side, CEOs will have to lead through personal and professional uncertainty to give their companies the best chance. As Jerry says:

Remember who you are, what you believe about the world, and then, risks be damned, lead from that place of broken-open-hearted warriorship.

Being Wrong

Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

At some point in 2002, while I was still relatively new to eBay, I found myself sitting in a room with the exec staff discussing something strategic. Many of the details of the meeting are now blurry, but one little event is still crystal clear in my mind. People were talking, discussing options with opinions flying around, and I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction to it. 

One of the senior leaders—a lovely, but brutally honest and blunt man—said, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

There was a pause in the conversation. My heart stopped. And then the conversation continued, while I sat there, stunned. 

I felt in my bones that I must speak again, in this meeting, to get over that comment, to move on and retain the confidence that I can contribute.  I practically forced myself to speak again. Sort of like falling off a horse and getting back on. 

I can guarantee you that the only person who remembers that moment now, 18 years later, is me. It’s actually a moment I’ve thought about several times as one of the key learning moments in my life. 

The reality is that we will all be wrong sometimes, or at the very least, perceived to be wrong. It’s the price of speaking, the price of thinking, the price of writing. So what should we do? Never speak, think, or write unless we are certain we are right? That would erase your voice from the conversation. 

I wrote a post last week about Quibi, and I purposely made a bold statement about how innovative this new film platform is. The innovation is not just the short-form content (or chapters) that Quibi uses; it is creating an interaction between the form factor of the screen (the phone) with the content for the first time in cinema. 

Many (most?) people disagree. Some even wrote to me privately to tell me why I was wrong. I love the engagement. 

Am I sure that Quibi will succeed? Absolutely not. But I am glad they are trying something fresh, new, and innovative, and I certainly hope they will succeed because I love the bold approach. I’ve been watching chapters for the past two nights and it’s a slick user experience. 

As investors, we need to be both right and contrarian to make a return for our LPs. We will often be wrong, too, because the path to success for any company is filled with so many near-death experiences along a very winding road. But we can’t be afraid to make an investment.

Similarly, we can’t be afraid to talk or write. I will be right sometimes. I will be wrong sometimes. What matters to me is the thinking and the engagement. And I prefer to have a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where I am rooting for success rather than failure. 

Speak up. Claim your seat at the table. So what if you are wrong sometimes? We are all wrong sometimes. Shake it off and move on. I promise you that you are the only one who will remember that moment (even days later). Ultimately, your voice matters. Don’t erase yourself.

“Inspiring” isn’t something you ARE; it’s something you DO

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

During my monthly women’s alumnae circle one of the participants raised the question on how to be an inspirational leader. Her manager was “incredibly inspirational” and she wanted to be seen that way, too.

“Inspirational” seemed to be this nebulous, possibly unattainable characteristic that was floating above us all… hard to achieve and only bestowed on the select few. 

It forced me to think about inspiration. What is it? What does it mean, and is it some “secret skill” that some people are born with? 

When I was young in my career, I, too, thought that inspiration was a sort of “magical power.” But the more I worked with inspirational leaders, the more I realized that it is often much simpler than that. It’s basically the same elements every time.

Whenever someone inspires you, this is what they’re doing:

They conceive of, and communicate, a big vision. They’re also able to articulate what the world will look like when this vision has been accomplished. Often, they are painting with a broad brush and using words that connect with you. By doing that, they show you how the world, or the company, or all of our lives will be better when this vision has been realized.

Then, they can explain why OUR team is the team that can make this happen. It may be hard, but we are the right ones, the capable ones, and goddammit, we will do it.

They break down the journey into digestible, logical chunks that will help the team execute. The BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is broken down when they show you which stream of work YOU will own. This is where they make it clear you are valued and how your contribution is important to the goal. 

Throughout the process, they motivate you to become the person who can accomplish the goal. You may hit roadblocks, because what we are trying to do is hard, but you are not alone, and they will help you become the person who can accomplish this. 

Doing this well requires a base of trust. In the absence of a personal history together, they can say certain things to establish some kind of trust. Those things are basically:

  • We’re in this together
  • We may fail, but I won’t hang you out to dry if we do
  • You won’t be punished if we don’t get there
  • I’m going to help mitigate the consequences of this risk that we’re all taking

If they succeed in their effort to inspire you, you become a motivated member of their squad. You are excited about the vision. You trust this leader knows how to get shit done, and get you from point A to point B. You also feel motivated to work your ass off to do your part, and if you hit a roadblock, you trust that the leader will help you solve it and support you in your efforts.

Finally, you believe you’ll be better off in the new vision, than in the current state of the world. That’s successful inspirational leadership.

These are the tangible actions that a good leader takes to be inspirational. What’s unsaid is that at the base of all this, the person has to be a good person, who genuinely cares about the people. As Jerry Colonna says, “I believe that better humans make better leaders.”

What if Dieter Rams designed your company?

Last weekend, I watched the Dieter Rams documentary. It’s an incredible film, full of moments that make you pause. But Rams said one thing that really stood out: “Design only works when it really seeks to achieve something for humanity.”

This struck a chord with me because I believe that startup ideas work best when they seek to achieve something for humanity. It’s the underlying thesis for Spero Ventures

This goes beyond product and to the gestalt of the startup itself. As a founder, Dieter Rams’ principles are relevant to designing both your product and your company.

Here are some of the ways Dieter Rams’ principles apply to building companies and not just products.

Good design is innovative

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.”

You already know that your product should be one that advances the world with your innovation instead of being yet another me-too product in a crowded space. 

The same should be true of your company. While a great product will attract great talent, a company that is innovative, that pushes the boundaries of how work and collaboration happen, that experiments with how culture evolves and permeates, is also important. 

To attract the very best, your company—how you build and run it—should move us toward the world that you want to live in. 

Good design is honest

“It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”

Your product keeps its promises to your customer. It’s equally important to have that honesty as a company. 

The only thing you have is your reputation, with your customers, your employees, your collaborators, and your board. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Do not do anything nefarious (like collecting data without their permission, misrepresenting facts etc.) Build the honest, exceptional company you want to see in the world.

Good design is long-lasting

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.”

Values stand the test of time. 

Figure out your values and let them guide your company. What is it going to take to make your company last? Build your company around a core set of values that are everlasting. 

Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.”

Be particular. You know it will show in your product. It will also show in how you build your company. 

The best founders are fanatical about their culture, who they hire, how they hold their meetings. When the founders take this approach, it permeates the whole company and everyone focuses on the details that will delight1.

Good design is environmentally friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”

Climate change will be the defining problem and opportunity of our age. Even if your product doesn’t directly affect climate change and sustainability, your company should. The decisions you make should be driven by a deep care for the only planet we have. It’s a responsibility that every person has, and every leader should embrace. 



These principles are design principles, sure. They are also incredibly useful leadership principles that can help with company design. Startups that think through some of these will be better equipped to deliver great product, hire the best people, and create value over the long term. 

They are also life principles.  

Watching the documentary was incredible because these are not just the principles Rams uses to design products, but rather principles he has used to design his own life. He lives by these principles. The documentary allows you to see into his life, his house, his desk, his garden and how he uses his time. 

The style of the documentary reflects the content beautifully. The way the documentary is shot (minimal, sometimes in extreme close up, always with a locked down camera), how it is edited, and presented is very much in keeping with Dieter Rams’ design principles. It’s beautiful, minimal and captivating. 

It is inspiring to see his world. I highly recommend you watch the documentary.


  1. I wrote a post on knowing the details and why it matters. 

We Need a New Resume

Because Actions Speak Louder Than Job Titles

On a film set, every worker is hand-picked to be there. Usually, you get hand-picked because someone on that set knows your work. They recommend you because you are good at what you do and because you are a pleasure to work with. 

The tech/startup world is not too different. As work evolves, I believe that more of the job market will shift toward this tour-of-duty model, in which people come together to solve a specific problem. Increasingly, the future of work will look much more like a film set. 

To reflect this project-based work, we need a new kind of resume. This requires surfacing a different set of data—not just statements by the individual, but validation by the actions of those who work with them.

This requires two key changes to how the world of resumes works:

1. The new resume should capture the fact that great people get picked repeatedly to be on ambitious teams.

If I, as a director, choose to work with a producer or cinematographer repeatedly, it means I respect their capabilities and enjoy working with them. I am vouching for them with my actions. This data is gold1.

Similarly, in the tech world, I might hire the same engineer for multiple startups. By hiring her repeatedly, I’m vouching for her with my actions. Ideally, her resume should highlight the repeat engagements she’s earned, because the biggest validation by any work colleague is “Yes, I would choose to work with you again.” 

When someone is always selected, it’s because they are great. As the world moves to project-based work, this will be the key signal. 

2. The new resume needs to capture the value created, even in a short time. 

While people may only participate for a short period of time (1-2 years, 2-3 months etc.), they may still have an outsized impact on value creation. So, the new resume needs to capture the value that the person created, which is weighed more highly than their tenure. (By the way, we also need a different compensation system for this, but that’s a topic for another post). 

The new resume could make work better for everyone

Here’s how: 

  • Shorter projects lower the bar in a good way: When a team is hiring for a shorter project, it makes it easier to be considered or to break into an industry. Instead of having to be vetted by dozens of people, all you have to do is convince someone to let you onto a project, knowing that if it doesn’t work, you will be let go. 
  • Creating value is what’s valued: Fast learners, those who learn and apply those skills quickly, and hard workers who are collaborative and move things forward, will be rewarded. Impressing the people you work with will ensure you’ll be brought on again. 
  • Flexibility increases: Teams can bring on and let go of people as needed. And people can commit to shorter-term gigs or fire clients that don’t fit what they are looking for. 

Right now, I don’t see a good tech solution for this. If you are working on something like this, or spend your time thinking about this, please do get in touch. 


  1. IMDb, for example, has the data on how many times people have worked together but doesn’t do anything with it 

…But Sometimes, Ignore The Details

Last week, I wrote a post on knowing the details. And yes, you should absolutely know them. However, do not let the details drive the vision. Throughout a startups’ life, there will be pivots both big and small. Each of those should be because it is the right decision for the company in the competitive environment in which it lives. 

The reason large companies crawl along is that the layers of details and decisions and organization slow them down to a glacial pace — large companies defer to details. The way startups win is by moving fast and, when necessary, ignoring the details in order to point in the right direction.