Technology

…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.

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Read the Handbook, Know the Details

One of the most useful pieces of advice that I got when I started at eBay was to know the details… in great detail. I was told that the head of the US business, Jeff, knew the details of the product and the business and if I went into a meeting with him without knowing those details, I wouldn’t be able to represent myself or the product org well. 

Because of that advice, I spent my early weeks learning how the codebase worked, how the database tables were structured, what was hard to code (and why), and what was easy. I was glad I did because Jeff knew the details in a way that allowed him to understand how hard or easy things were to build. And he would constantly push us to move faster, launch sooner. In high-stakes conversation, instead of responding with a tepid, “I’ll have to get back to you,” I could confidently state whether something was doable or not, how hard it would be, and brainstorm solutions and alternatives on the spot.

Over and over, I’ve seen leaders who know the details push back when an engineering lead says, “Oh, that’s going to take six months,” or when a board member says, “You should be able to do this in six weeks.” A good CEO should know the details in any part of the organization that can have an impact on the company, whether that’s product, engineering, sales, finance, operations, etc. 

I am not recommending a CEO micromanage — that is hellish and disempowering for everyone else. However, as a company grows, the number of people, processes, and checks and balances slow it down. Only a leader who knows the details can make sure that strategic priorities are getting done as fast as possible so the team can win.

This past weekend the world lost one of the greats: Kobe Bryant. Beyond the realm of basketball, he will go down as one of the most competitive people of all time. No matter what he was doing, he had to win — and he put in the extra effort to get there. In an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Bryant shared a confession

“I read [the referee’s handbook] to understand where they need to be in certain moments of time so if I needed to get away with a foul… That ref back there… is not gonna see this little hold right here.”

If you want to excel, Bryant showed the way — it pays to know the details.

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Lessons for entrepreneurs from India’s pickle queen

Photo credit: Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

A few days ago, The New York Times published an article about Usha Prabakaran — AKA the “pickle queen” of India. She wrote and self-published a niche, cult classic book with 1,000 pickle recipes from around India. I really enjoyed the article as it combined my love for pickles, my hometown of Chennai, and impressive women.

It’s also an article about an entrepreneur, and there are a number of useful lessons for those of us in the business of building businesses:

1. Bootstrapping to product-market fit is a great path to follow

But over the next two decades, “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” self-published by an unknown author, with a first print run of just 1,000, became a cult classic in India and its diaspora — praised for its precision and scope, celebrated on blogs and podcasts and hunted down in shops, where it sold out.

2. Be disciplined about product scope and get it out there; avoid feature creep.

In her book, Ms. Prabakaran limited herself to 1,000 recipes. When I finally got my own print-on-demand copy of “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” through Amazon, I was dazzled.

3. Focus on the goal. Learn what you need about other industries in order to accomplish the goal.

Ms. Prabakaran, now 64, became known as India’s “pickle queen,”but she wasn’t interested in monetizing that title. “I know nothing about publishing, and I was never interested in selling books,” she said at her home in Chennai. “My job is to keep the past alive.”

4. Sustainability is important.

A straightforward “anti-waste” chapter includes recipes for plantain skins, jackfruit seeds, ridge-gourd peels and lime leaves, which often end up in the compost heap. While restaurant chefs make headlines now for cooking less wastefully, pickling has always been about saving the scraps, developing flavor and texture with ingenious frugality.

5. Be laser focused on what actually matters. And you get to decide what matters.

Ms. Prabakaran is small-framed, with a wicked sense of humor and a big, throaty laugh. Her forehead is dimpled where the tumor was removed, close to the hairline, and she has no interest in reconstructive surgery. 

“People care too much about looks,” she said with a shrug. “If I have any spare time, I want to work on my books.”

6. Don’t rest on your laurels. Move onto the next release, next product.

Ms. Prabakaran is at work on a second book, turning her attention to Indian rasam, a kind of soup.

7. Leave your customer feeling intense joy

The pickle did what all great pickles do: It revived me with a ripple of salt and acidity. The grainy oil tickled with chiles and citrus. It had the effect, with every breath, of filling my lungs with more air so I could breathe more deeply. And it made everything on the plate taste bigger, stronger, hotter, better.

“Isn’t it absolutely dynamite?” she asked. The question was rhetorical. She was grinning.

8. Founder-market fit is important. Do the work to know your space.

Ms. Prabakaran was hooked. She apprenticed herself, learning to turn jars in the sun so the fruit dried evenly, and to combine new and old tamarinds to balance out their acidity levels. She made so many pickles that she often gave jars away to friends and family, who begged her to write down a few recipes and share them. As she tried to standardize the recipes, her project became increasingly more ambitious.

 9. Be unstoppable and don’t take no for an answer.

She spoke with publishers, and when none were interested in her idea, Ms. Prabakaran decided to do it herself.

10. Mission matters. Find the “why” that is bigger than yourself.

Ms. Prabakaran worried that without documentation, the gradual loss of this knowledge was inevitable — that more and more people would make fewer and fewer pickle varieties, until eventually, the expertise was lost.

“The reason for writing the book was to ensure that the vast culinary heritage of this land stays on the map,” she said.

11. Be resourceful to get what you need.
12. Focus intensely on the product your customers will see. You need to know it in extreme detail.

“My friends called me a crafty devil, because I could wriggle a pickle recipe out of anyone,” Ms. Prabakaran said. After she narrowed the recipes down from a catalog of 5,000, she tested each one in her home kitchen three times — a more thorough process than is used for many glossy cookbooks from big publishers.

13. Ignore the doubters, they may sometimes be friends or allies.

Friends who had supported her pickle book were skeptical — was there really so much variation when it came to rasam? Would she even be able to find 1,000 recipes this time around? And why devote a whole book to something so ordinary?

14. Be willing to do the hard, unglamorous work to make something great.

Ms. Prabakaran was undeterred. She sat down to write a love letter to rasam as a genre, extolling its value and declaring it worthy of celebration. Then she spent 10 years researching it, gathering and testing recipes, documenting patterns and anomalies.

15. Ignore the gatekeepers, work around them.

Ms. Prabakaran plans to self-publish the book in March. She wants to make it easy for cooks to find, right from the start, even if that means giving it away for free.

Entrepreneurs come in many forms. Ms. Prabakaran has displayed so many of the traits that make an entrepreneur successful. I recommend you read the article yourself. In addition to new lessons you may find, you will get a peek into a fascinating world. 

I now own the pickle book (thanks, Amazon) and I’ll be on the lookout for the book on rasam. I’m not a great cook, but I always want to support the entrepreneurs who inspire.

Non-obvious choices

My film school classmate Heather shared this video of Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T. Take a look.

What stands out are the choices he made. Before becoming an investor, I spent some years in film. I’ve auditioned children for roles and most of them make the obvious choice – screaming, shouting, being loud. That is likely what most of the kids who auditioned for this role did, too. “NOOOO!!! You can’t take him!!” etc.

But what Henry Thomas did was so unexpected. With such little information, he decided to very quietly cry. He made the creature his friend, he asked how the agent even knows all this. He decided to be extremely vulnerable. These are the choices that got him hired.

I’ve often said that there are a ton of similarities between tech and film1. This is one small example – when you are interviewing candidates, a majority will pick the obvious answers. That’s fine. They could be journeymen in the company. But when there is a candidate who makes an entirely non-obvious choice, something that makes you sit back and think in a new and different way, those are the candidates who can change the trajectory of the company. Hire them.


  1. That’s for another post 

Scaling Genomics

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, Gencove

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa


Genomics is on the verge of enabling a torrent of data-driven invention, personalization and decision-making. 
Applications will extend across all forms of life?—?from humans to animals to plants to microbes.

In healthcare, genomics could pervade nearly every aspect of patient care, from prevention strategies to decisions about treatments. It also will provide the basis for a new generation of targeted drugs and therapies that can extend and improve the quality of life for billions of people. In agriculture, genomics will optimize plant and animal productivity while aiding in disease resistance and food safety/traceability. Genomics will also play a role in animal conservation, environmental monitoring, and public health and safety.

All these new opportunities will lead to the creation of new markets, products and services, requiring new tools and platforms.

At Spero Ventures, we invest in technologies that make life worth living. We believe genomics will be foundational to advancing the health and well-being of humanity and the planet. It will inform decision-making and touch lives in ways we cannot yet imagine and may not even see. And so it gives us great pleasure to announce our investment in Gencove.

Gencove, led by co-founders Joe Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, is developing and commercializing a software platform to support low-pass whole genome sequencing. Low-pass sequencing sequences the whole genome at low depth (0.4–4x) and uses imputation algorithms to fill in missing data. The platform empowers decision-makers across consumer, clinical, research, and agricultural fields with easy and affordable access to rich genomic data and insights.

Whole genome sequencing is the most expensive form of sequencing and the most exhaustive. It maps all three billion base pairs within a (human) genome, providing a massive volume of data for analysis. It serves as the foundation for generating new knowledge of how and why living beings develop. And it is becoming the gold standard for discovering new genetic variants and new relationships between genotypes and phenotypes.

The cost of whole genome sequencing has declined dramatically since the early days of the Human Genome Project, famously outpacing Moore’s law. Reductions originally owed to the introduction of Next Generation Sequencing1, followed by hardware improvements, and more recently software that shifts cost and computational burden to later stage analysis2. Despite these reductions, the $500–1000 price point (and even the widely-touted yet still aspirational $100 price point) for whole genome sequencing remains out of reach for a wide range of applications. Without an affordable alternative, these applications will either fail to be commercialized, remain niche and unaffordable for most, or rely on the limited subset of data offered by less expensive DNA microarrays3 (which typically cover 0.03% of the genome).

Low-pass sequencing (LPS) is this affordable, data rich alternative. And Gencove is making LPS available to customers at price points beginning at $50 per sequence?—?on par with microarrays. In addition to offering comprehensive coverage, LPS outperforms microarrays in detecting both common and rare genetic variation. LPS does not require a priori knowledge of the genome making it suitable for new variant discovery and free from the bias inherent in microarrays (which are widely seen as unsuitable for non-Caucasian/European populations not well covered by reference databases).

Gencove’s customers are integrating low-pass sequence data into personalized consumer product offerings, new research modalities, novel diagnostics, plant/animal breeding programs, and more.

We are excited partner with Gencove in its mission to bring affordable genomic insights to customers and industries that have never before been able to affordably integrate them at scale?—?potentially unlocking discoveries and innovations we have yet to imagine.


  1. Next Generation (or High-Throughput) Sequencing became the most widely used technique in the early-2000s due to its ability to handle large-scale, automated genome analysis. 

  2. Including genome assembly, variant calling, quality control, etc. 

  3. Microarrays examine a predetermined set of sites on the genome from which one can infer ancestry, genetic relationships, and some disease risks. 

We + me

David Brooks wrote about his efforts to improve social isolation with his project, Weave:

The first core idea was that social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems. The second idea was that this problem is being solved by people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric. How can we learn from their example and nationalize their effect?

Brooks found these “weavers” all across the nation. When you can connect people around shared interests, common goals and mutually-experienced problems rather than the things that separate and divide them, you build communities.

This is something we think about since one of our key investment areas is human connection. So how can we use tech to do this better? Technology scales and can cross local/geographic boundaries. And it can be used to form deep relationships (remember Twitter in the early days when you formed friendships?). How can tech recreate the feeling of presence and attention? The feeling of a small group intimacy? If we can do this, we open up such interesting ways to make people feel less alone.

The only tweak I’d make to Brooks’ article is his statement that “We precedes me.” Relationships and compassion can live side by side with the idea of self-interest and self-expression. It’s should be in my own self-interest to want my community to thrive and be healthy because I live here. One does not have to precede the other and when we realize that we are all inter-connected and have to coexist is when there will be balance.

The Things that Make Life Worth Living

In the past couple of months, we’ve seen some dizzying headlines: “World’s first gene-edited babies created in China, claims scientist,” “AI expert warns automation could take 40% of jobs by 2035” and “Man Marries Virtual Reality Hologram.”

All of these headlines are troubling for various reasons. But they aren’t reasons to reconsider investment in science and technology. I think the opposite is true. We need to support entrepreneurs and technologists who want to use technology to benefit humanity at scale.

Just like nuclear technology can be used to light up a city or annihilate a country, many things have the potential to be used to create or destroy. Yes, genomics, outside the bounds of agreed-upon ethics, might be abused to create designer babies. At the same time, millions of lives could be saved when clinicians are able to harness genomics for preventive and personalized medicine. Yes, artificial intelligence will lead to some job displacement; but it can also assist robots in taking on dangerous tasks, as well as help us understand and solve complex problems such as climate change and patterns of infectious disease. And when someone wants to marry a virtual being, we should see it as one more call to solve the global loneliness epidemic.

About this time last year, my partners and I were thinking about what kind of fund we wanted to bring into the world and the types of businesses we wanted to invest in. As part of the process, we thought a lot about what the future might look like.

After much discussion, we came to the conclusion that regardless of what it looks like, the fundamentals are likely to stay the same. The things that matter most to us today will continue to be the things that matter most to us in the future. They are:

  • Well-being – health, the environment and the food we eat
  • Work and a sense of purpose
  • Human connection

These are the things that make life worth living.

We founded Spero Ventures to partner with revolutionary entrepreneurs who drive progress by building successful companies that both scale and inspire…

…like Tim at Roam Robotics, which makes a flexible, affordable exoskeleton that helps people in sports, life, rehabilitation and work; Ivonna and Gabby at Fathom.ai whose mission is to support every athlete to perform at their full potential; Michael and Matt at Skillshare, which aims to turn the new economy into an open meritocracy by making it possible for people to gain the skills they need; Porter and Ryan at Jopwell, which empowers underrepresented minority candidates to advance their careers; Anthony at SafeTraces, which helps ensure the safety and traceability of our food supply; or Grant at Droneseed, which uses drones to make reforestation safe, efficient and scalable.

We help companies scale their products and businesses to serve billions of customers?—?we’ve done it as operators and product leaders at startups and multi-billion-dollar publicly-traded companies, and now as board members.

If you’re building a company that aims to make an impact on the word at scale, please reach out to us at info@spero.vc.

True Product Leadership is Product Stewardship -

True Product Leadership is Product Stewardship

As product leaders, we all want people to love what we create. But people often use our products in ways we never could have predicted. Once we release something into the world, it belongs to the users?—?and sometimes they use our products in unexpected and negative ways. We can’t be held responsible for what they do with it… right?

It’s time we take more ownership of the impact our products have on the world. The stakes are too high to claim ignorance?—?particularly in tech, where our products can reach billions of people. True product leadership extends beyond creation: True product leadership is product stewardship.

We have become painfully aware of what can happen when the tools we use encourage our worst instincts and amplify the most virulent voices. In past few months, there have been several violent efforts where the suspects behind them had been vocal about their beliefs on social media. Do the platforms really have no control over the ways in which their products are used? That feels both naive and untrue.

When I led product at eBay, we wanted to be “a well-lit place to trade.” The company’s mission was “to empower people by connecting millions of buyers and sellers around the world and creating economic opportunity.” That was the intention. But as we scaled, people began to use eBay in ways we hadn’t predicted. At one point people began trading disturbing items, including Nazi memorabilia. As we thought about how to solve it, we asked ourselves a few questions: Who are we? What do we believe? Why did we create this product? Once we framed it in terms of core values, the decision about what to do became clear. The company decided to ban all hate-related propaganda, including nazi memorabilia.

Product leadership teams can do more than curb bad behavior. They can also work to encourage good behavior. Last year, during the refugee crisis when governments around the world turned them away, Airbnb’s product team worked on a solution. In June 2017, Airbnb launched Open Home?—?a way for people to give refugees a place to stay. This was not just a marketing stunt. Airbnb invested in building a brand new product: a marketplace that allows people to offer their homes for free to refugees and victims of disasters.

Thoughtful product stewards can also protect us from ourselves. Plenty of studies have shown that technology can be addicting. Apple is taking some admirable first steps to help us resist temptation. Screen Time, launched as part of iOS 12, offers new tools for managing screen time. Jony Ive was recently interviewed about it. “If you’re creating something new, it is inevitable there will be consequences that were not foreseen,” he said. “It’s part of the culture at Apple to believe that there is a responsibility that doesn’t end when you ship a product.”

How do we create that kind of a culture? Here’s a stab at a few steps we could take towards regaining control over the way our products live in the world.

Step one: Define.

Before you begin designing, sit down with the team to define how you want your product to be used, as well as what people shouldn’t be able to do with your product. Drawing this line upfront will provide clarity for a muddy future when the world changes around you.

Step 2: Imagine.

Think about all the things people could do with your product, including edge cases. What unintended consequences come up? What could happen if the “worst” person got their hands on your product? How can you incentivize people to use it in the right way, and penalize people who don’t?

Step 3: Communicate

Communicate your beliefs, values and intentions to everyone at your company. If a stranger asked anyone how the product should and shouldn’t be used, every employee should give the same answer. This ensures that everyone is on the same page, morally. Instead of making hard decisions when things are blowing up, you’ve already agreed what to do.

Step 4: Measure

Product people measure everything. How can you measure the ways people misuse your product? What early warning systems could you put in place? Review the data and the signals it’s sending you at least once a quarter.

Step 5: Do Something.

There will always be unexpected surprises. But since you already know your moral line in the sand, when you see something that crosses that line, you’ll know it. And you can take action.

Technology should enhance human connection. It should help make the world better. The first step is for us all to begin to see product leadership as product stewardship.

Want Your Company to Be More Successful? Deliver Value to Shareholders AND Society -

Want Your Company to Be More Successful? Deliver Value to Shareholders AND Society

When we launched our new fund, Spero Ventures, last month, we said our goal is to support founders that are driven to deliver value to shareholders andsociety.

Since then I’ve noticed some cognitive dissonance around that idea in Silicon Valley. It’s almost as if people think these two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Yet many companies have proven there is a direct correlation between building a successful business and having a positive effect on the world at scale. Most people are familiar with purpose-driven companies such as Tesla, eBay and Airbnb. There are plenty more. Here are a few:

LinkedIn’s mission is connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful. In other words: connect people to jobs. The more LinkedIn executes against this goal, the more it expands economic opportunity for people around the world, and the more money LinkedIn makes. LinkedIn has provided access to opportunity for more than 500 millionusers. Two years ago Microsoft paid $26.2 billion for the company.

Turo operates a peer-to-peer carsharing marketplace. Turo’s app makes it possible for car owners to rent out their vehicles when they aren’t using them. Car owners get to earn money on an idle asset, while renters get easier access to better cars at cheaper prices. Turo is unlocking economic opportunity for people on both sides of the relationship.

Skillshare aims to make the economy an open meritocracy where anyone can learn the skills they need to succeed. On one side of the marketplace are experts who teach everything from email marketing to ink drawing, and aerial photography to 3D printing design. Skillshare’s 4 million students pay to take classes to further their careers, stay ahead of changes in their industries and earn money with side projects. The experts get paid for the classes they teach?—?the more popular the class, the more they get paid.

None of these companies is financed by charitable grants; they all raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists who expect big returns.

Countless studies show that mission-driven companies have many other positive externalities, including the ability to attract and retain top talent, the sense of purpose required to inspire a team that is willing to weather tough times, and a loyal customer base that connects to the product and the mission, leading to brand preference and affinity.

A successful business model is a fundamental underpinning to all this. It is critical to ensure a business not only survives, but thrives and reaches significant scale. When that happens, it will have a massive positive effect on the world. And when that happens, shareholders will benefit, as well.

If you are building a company and you share those goals, I hope you’ll reach out.

A Future That Belongs to Everyone

Sci-fi novelist William Gibson once said, “The future is already here?—?it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Some of us want to do something about that.

Today I’m proud to introduce a new kind of venture capital firm: Spero Ventures, a $100 million fund investing in founders who are building a future that belongs to everyone. We spun out of Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm entirely funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar. Pierre will continue to be our sole investor/LP.

The primary tenet of our purpose-driven fund: We are driven to deliver value to our shareholders AND society.

When the notion of disruption is to win at any cost?—?without regard for the impact on society?—?we know we have a problem.

When the tools that were supposed to make it easier to be friends actually push us further apart, we know we have a problem.

When nearly half of all Americans don’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense, we know we have a problem.

When loneliness is an epidemic, and is deadlier than obesity, we have a problem.

When we look out to the year 2050 and realize we won’t have enough food to feed the growing population of the world, we know we have a problem.

 

But when we see creatives, scientists and engineers working together to build solutions to these problems, we have hope.

When the entrepreneurs at Koko devised a way for social networks to create safe, healthy online communities, we saw hope.

When the founders of Bunker made it easier to give freelancers and gig-economy workers access to a safety net through insurance, we saw hope.

When the team at Skillshare began scaling a platform that allows anyone to learn the necessary skills to change their career trajectory, we saw hope.

When the entrepreneurs behind SafeTraces found a way to solve the food traceability problem using DNA, we saw hope.

 

Spero, the name of our new fund, means “hope” in Latin.

We are optimistic about the role of technology in building a better world, and mission-driven entrepreneurs give us hope for the future.

When we began thinking about what kind of fund we wanted to bring into the world, and what companies we wanted to invest in, we thought a lot about what the future might look like. Sometimes it is painted grey; sometimes it’s technicolor?—?but it usually has a space-age feel to it: vehicles flying through superhighways in the air; androids and people living side-by side; interplanetary travel, etc.

While some or all of that may come true, we believe some fundamental things are likely to stay the same:

  • We will care about our health and the environment we live in.
  • We will seek fulfillment in our work and our sense of purpose.
  • We will value relationships with friends, family and community.

These are the things that have the potential to define a life.

Last fall, a few days before a board meeting to pitch the idea of this new fund, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Immediately everything in life became hyper-focused. I thought about those three fundamental things:

  • My well-being
  • The purpose of my work
  • My family and friends

As I progressed through the treatments, I thought about what purpose drives me, and what kind of people I wanted to spend my life with. The answer is: People who give me hope.

 

If you’re building a purpose-driven startup in the areas of well-being, work and purpose, or human connection, we hope you’ll learn more about how we invest, our team and reach out to us.

We know that the best opportunities often come from unexpected, unknown places, so feel free to send us a note right here on our website.

The founding team of Spero Ventures in the construction zone of our new office. Clockwise from top center: Rob Veres, Christina Li, Shripriya Mahesh, Ha Nguyen, Sara Eshelman