A Smarter Internet-of-Things

I love the concept of a smart home and have a number of monitoring devices. I have Nest for temperature control, Dropcam to keep a close eye on my front door and WeMo for my lights and outlets. But there is one thing I have noticed, they all feel like silos. These products have different apps, independent push notifications, and they all serve separate purposes. I receive so many irrelevant push notifications that I am beginning to wonder when I will miss a notification I actually care about. I won’t deny that they are cool gadgets, but they could be better.

The IoT industry has an opportunity to make products that are actually smart. There are too many notifications and devices don’t learn fast, if at all, leaving a fragmented ecosystem of products, apps, and notifications. Few devices have settings to filter notifications or set rules, and many just send alerts about everything. UX needs improvement!

Real intelligence is missing from my world of “smart things.” Notion, currently in Techstars, has a unique approach – to give me information about my home that I actually care about and only when it’s important. Notion focuses on home intelligence and just launched a Kickstarter campaign and already has $200,000 in orders as I’m writing this. The Notion team has created a multi-function sensor about the size of an Oreo that can detect light, acceleration, sound, natural frequency, orientation, temperature, water leaks, and proximity. Notion can tell you the simple things a home security system can detect, like if a door opens, a window breaks, or an alarm goes off, but it can also tell you if the temperature of a baby’s room is too hot or cold, if a pipe breaks in your basement, if a teenager is getting into your liquor cabinet or if your propane tank is low.

This is cool functionality to be sure, but what I am most excited about is that it actually learns about me over time as I accept and decline alerts. I’ll be able to set my own custom rules in the app too. I don’t need to know every single time my front door opens because it’s usually my family or anticipated visitors. I’m also looking forward to calendar, weather and other useful integrations to customize the UX for my life. All of these improvements are made possible by their single sensor and innovative data technologies.

I love home automation, but what I need are intelligent devices that are more than just gadgets. As the smart home market continues to evolve, the appetite for products that truly make you smarter about your home and your life will continue to grow and become more useful. I’m excited to watch Notion progress and can’t wait to get the sensors I ordered via Kickstarter.

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How To Not Be Heard

For years I’ve worked very closely with two individuals who get extremely excitable, to the point of anger and frustration, when they’re expressing their point of view. These two people happen to be among the smartest people I’ve ever met. However, they often deliver their feedback accompanied by something very off-putting such as the following gem:

“Someone with a brain will eventually figure this out!”

This is what they really said to me! It was immediately followed by some very insightful and important feedback. But it’s feedback most people would never be able to hear.

If you were on the receiving end of this feedback, it would be pretty hard not to feel insulted. The implication that you don’t have a brain would probably distract you from any advice or insights that followed.

Fortunately, I have what I consider a rare and useful skill in my line of work–the ability to cut through the emotion and still listen to the content of the message. However, most people aren’t built that way. They’re going to get hung up on the fact that you’re insulting or berating them and how that makes them feel. As a result they will never give any consideration to your actual message, no matter how amazing your insights may be.

I once heard a great phrase, which I’ve since successfully passed along to these two individuals:

“The fury with which you speak undermines the veracity of your statements.”

So this is how to not be heard: Scream. Hurl insults. Unleash your fury.

If you do want to be heard: Stop. Think. Breathe. Set aside the emotion in your tone.

When I work with startups and give them feedback, I always try to remain even keel and tone the down emotional content. Sometimes I’m really pissed off, and sometimes I’m really excited, but I strive to make sure my message is heard and not my emotion. If you’re the kind of person who likes to scream and deliver a lot of hellfire with your feedback, recognize that many people will never hear your feedback. If you’re the rare example of someone like this who also has amazing, important insights to offer, realize that you’re undermining yourself. Your ideas will almost never be heard.

If you want to be heard, you have to learn to rein it in. If you’re prone to getting excited and emotional, remember: Don’t let the fury with which you speak undermine the veracity of your statements. Tone down the emotion when you’re providing feedback, so that your brilliant insights can be heard.

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Open Angel Forum #10 in Boulder

It’s time to take a quick look back at companies that have presented at Open Angel Forum here in Boulder so far. There have been 9 events. Companies that participated have gone on to raise well over $100M and have over 400 employees. Pretty awesome. The full list of companies that participated in the past is at the bottom of this post.

Now it’s your turn! Open Angel Forum #10 in Boulder is on October 28 at 5pm. If you’d like to present there, please apply. If accepted, you get to come have dinner with the most active angel investors in our community an in informal no-BS setting. Open Angel Forum is always a great fit for companies that already have some early commitments to their rounds, and t amplifies this nicely to other active investors in the community. If you’re an active angel that wants to attend, please apply here.

As always, there is no cost to present or attend as an angel. Even dinner is covered. Here’s what past participants have to say about Open Angel Forum.

“I’ve done many pitches in a variety of settings. OAF is by far the most personal I’ve experienced. We were able to pitch and to chat. People often say “it’s business, it’s not personal”..I don’t buy that. When it comes to early stage investing, it’s also personal. Investors want to know the people behind companies and entrepreneurs want to understand that team behind investments. It’s relationship and OAF does a great job bring together both sides who are already living in the same community.“ – Dave Cass, CEO/Co-Founder of Uvize

“OAF was a great launch point for us at Given Goods. It’s an incredible way to get exposure to sophisticated angel investors within your community. We found that in Boulder if you invest in getting to know the people in the community, the community will invest in your success personally and as a company. This proved true from OAF to Boulder Beta to TechStars.” – Alex, Founder at Conspire

“The entire OAF experience was great. I met some other local entrepreneurs who I’m still in touch with, and we picked up two new investors who have intro’d us around town. It was a great hand-picked crowd who were more engaged than most pitch events. Would highly recommend to early stage entrepreneurs” – Will Sacks, Co-Founder and CEO at Kindara

“The main differentiator for OAF was the fact that there were active and qualified angels there. Regardless of whether a company benefits monetarily from the event, the interaction with this group has a dynamic that was very challenging and positive.” – Sherisse Hawkins, CEO/Co-Founder at BeneathTheInk

“OAF is a great opportunity to present in front of a small group of engaged and insightful investors. It’s an incredibly high value event for entrepreneurs.” – Alex, Founder at Conspire

A huge shout out is due to Fletcher Richman who does all the hard work around Open Angel Forum. Thank you Fletcher, you’re making a huge difference in our startup community.

Here’s all the past participants who have now raised > $100M and have 400+ employees in our community. I hope see you at the event on October 28!

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No Vision, All Drive

It was pretty fun to sit on stage recently with Techstars co-founder David Brown to tell our story in front of the newest class of Techstars founders in Boulder. Since it was our first time on stage together talking about how we built and sold our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, we put together a few short videos from the talk that highlight our entrepreneurial adventures.

Together we’ve had successes and failures over the last 25 years, and we’ve laughed a ton along the way. Here’s the quick story: in 1993, we founded our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, which grew from a basement startup to a successful multinational company with $50 million in annual sales and over 250 employees. Later we founded a company together called iContact, which failed (you may have heard of the one that was successful – we sold them the domain name after we failed). And finally, we founded Techstars together and it seems to be doing OK.

David recounts our experiences together, from founding Pinpoint to coming back as Managing Partner at Techstars just one year ago, in the updated and re-released version of his book, No Vision All Drive.

These short videos give you a glimpse into David’s book, which exemplifies what it was like for two young entrepreneurs who knew nothing about building a business to grow their startup into a real company with a successful exit.

The reason we started Techstars together was based on our experiences together. We sold Pinpoint Technologies for half as much as we later learned that the acquirer was willing to pay. Since then I’ve seen 48 Techstars companies exit. I’ve seen that pattern play itself back, and in some cases we’ve been able to double exit values for our founders. Sure wish we had that help when we sold our first company successfully!

Check out the videos and if you like what you see, grab a copy of No Vision All Drive, just released this week.

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Hurry – Kickstarter for Knee Deep #boulderflood

“Knee Deep” is a documentary that explores the tipping point for taking action. It’s based on what happened here in Boulder last September, with the floods. It would be a great thing for you to go and back right now with a few bucks, so they can make the documentary and inspire others. Deadline to back is July 25.

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The Pony’s Lucky Horseshoe

Jerry Neumann’s “Betting on the Ponies” is easily the single best thing I’ve read online in 2014. In it, Jerry thinks through how angel investing relates to unicorn hunting, plain old luck, high frequency investing, the importance of having a system and sticking to it, and much more. If you’re involved in early stage investing and you haven’t yet read it twice – please go and do that right now. It may be the best 15 minutes you’ve ever spent (in a professional capacity). Read the comments too.

I’ll wait right here. Then we’ll talk about whether my angel round investment in the (so far) super-unicorn Uber was in fact unicorn hunting or whether it was simply dumb luck. Or could it have been something in between?

Sim Simeonov (a long time Techstars mentor) has talked about luck in the past and also has a great follow-up to Jerry’s post. There is another key piece of advice here that I was given early and have certainly followed. Be consistent and don’t do just a few deals. Doing a few deals as an angel investor is a great way to increase the odds of losing. Luckily for me, Brad Feld gave me the same advice years earlier when I first started angel investing.

Guess what? Doing more deals increases your chances of getting lucky.

When I tossed $50k into the first angel round of Uber in 2009, it was only about the 20th investment I had ever made. To date, I’m an investor in more than 500 companies, mostly through Techstars and our related venture funds. I believe that I have invested in at least five companies which have a strong chance to turn out to be billion dollar “unicorns”.

But here’s the most interesting part. While I think I’m in five such companies, I can only identify two of them (three if I squint) sitting here right now as I write this. I can name several others that have a legitimate shot at it. And because of the large number of companies at play, I’m actually quite confident that there is at least one that will emerge “out of nowhere.”

Luck is a part of this game. And a long game it is.

In Jerry’s post, he says:

These are the two main VC strategies: (1) have a reputation of being the go-to investor in a certain type of company so you get first shot at investing in companies that are more likely to be unicorns; and (2) invest in enough companies that you have a decent probability of being an investor in the next unicorn.

later he says..

If you up that [the number of companies you can invest in] to 500 companies, your odds [of finding a unicorn] are 27%-28%. That would cost $17.5 million.

and

If either of these strategies is available to you, read no further, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Because of Techstars that second strategy is available to me and I will certainly keep doing what I am doing even though I have already invested in over 500 companies.

Back to Uber. I met Ryan Graves when he was relocating by driving across the country to become the first full time employee and original GM of Uber.

People ask me all the time if I knew Uber was special the moment I invested. Was it an obvious unicorn? Heck no. They didn’t have a single car on the road yet. It felt just as exciting as other companies that I invested in around the same time that went on to fail. I invested my usual amount, with my usual offers of help, and used my usual approach.

Ryan and I only met because he had heard of Techstars and thought it was cool, so he stopped in Boulder to check it out. Now let’s think about luck here for a second. If I had still been living in Florida (where I was born) I would not have been in Ryan’s path on that particular drive. If I had been on a business trip that day he found himself in Boulder, I would not have met Ryan. If Ryan had been in a bigger hurry he might not have stopped to check out Techstars. If I was not open to randomness, I might not have set up a quick conversation with Ryan that day. After all, I had no idea who he was back then. Further, Ryan himself would never have even heard of Uber had he not noticed one particular tweet on one particular day.

Luck is not a reason that impossibly good things happen. It’s a pre-requisite!

You can see this in the honest stories of any successful entrepreneur. If you are being regaled by the story of a founder who sold his company for enormous amounts of money, and they tell you only stories of skill while they pretend that luck had nothing to do with their success, then you are talking to a very lucky liar indeed.


In the spirit of Jerry’s original post as well as Sim’s thoughts on this subject, I wanted to submit a few additional considerations for the aspiring angel investor or early stage investor. On some level we should simply factor luck out of our equations for how to be a better angel investor. Just as we tell founders we work with, let’s focus only on what we can control. In my view, you must be open to randomness, work tirelessly to assist every entrepreneur you invest in, focus on consistent high velocity investing (shots on goal), build a quality filter that does not involve your crystal ball, all the while constructing a method of detection of the very best companies so you can continue to invest in them.

Easy, right? Good luck. ;-)

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