You’re Awesome Dude


This awesome picture was stolen without permission from Alexis’ awesome blog about stuff that is awesome.

Last week I got a call at 9 AM from a buddy I hadn’t spoke to in a while.  It went something like this:

Me:  “Yo, what’s up?

Amigo: “Hey, I just actually wanted to call you to say thank you.”

Me: “For what?”

Amigo: “For making an impact on my life.”

Me:  “Okaaay…Wait.  What do you mean?”

Amigo: “Well, remember when we were at that Dodgers game a few years back?”

Me:  “Yeah…”

Amigo:  “I was struggling with my business at the time, and you said to me ‘if you believe in what you’re doing keep going.  You’ll figure out a way to make it work’.  Well I stuck to it like you said, and the business today has never been better. Two weeks ago, we hit $1M in revenue.  So I just wanted to say thanks.  That conversation had a huge impact on my life”

Me:  “Well holy shit, man!   Do I get a cut??”

I didn’t actually say this last part.  It was more like this:

Me:  [stammering and kind of speechless]  Uh…I don’t even know what to say.  Thank you, man.  That means a ton to me.  I’m really at a loss for words.

After I got off the phone I thought to myself. “Jeez, well that was a pretty radical way to start off a morning.”  So, knowing how good it had made me feel, I decided to pay it forward and give this same gift to others.  Over the next few days I emailed three people to let them know how they have impacted my life.

The nearly uniform response I got back from everyone was something along the lines of: “Wow, thank you.  This means more to me than you realize.”

I recommend trying this out yourself.  It’s easy.  It’s fun. And it makes you feel good.

If someone has made an impact in your life, whether it’s a friend, a parent, a teacher, a sibling, a boss, let them know, and be as specific as possible about the piece of advice that helped shape your life. They likely have no idea that what they said had an impact on you, and I guarantee it will make their day.  It will probably make yours too.


Why You Should Focus On Distribution Before Focusing on Product

Winning companies have either a remarkable product that ‘sells itself’ or a strong product with remarkable distribution. As a startup founder, one of the fundamental questions you have to ask yourself early on is: should we focus our energy on product or distribution?

95% of the startup world answers, “product, no questions asked.”  I disagree.  Either option is a viable path but if you are a first time founder nailing distribution is going to be a helluva lot easier than nailing product.


The big problem with focusing all of your startup’s energy on product is that the “build it and they will come” argument only works if your product is an order of magnitude (10x) better than your competitors’  (H/T Peter Thiel).  If it’s not at least 10 times better than your competitor, then you’re essentially still competing on marketing.

Think about that for a minute. In order to win on product alone, you need to build something 10X better than anyone else!!!  It’s not impossible, but as anyone who has ever tried to build a product will tell you, it’s really, really, hard.

To build a 10X-better product you need a team of extremely skilled individuals (think Tony Fadell).  On the other hand, to nail distribution you only need one person who’s willing to hustle and understands how to play the game (think Gary Vaynerchuck).

When making a decision on which route to go, it’s important to be honest with yourself and leverage the skillset you actually have, not the one you wish you had.  When you look in the mirror, do you see Tony Fadell?  If so, by all means go the product route. It’s your best best. If you don’t see Tony Fadell and there are no Tony Fadells on your team, then the Vaynerchuck route will probably give you a better shot at success.  The beauty of the Vaynerchuck route, especially as a first-time founder, is that you don’t need specialized skills to pull it off.  Anyone can do it.  You just need to commit to out-CARING your competition.

That’s primarily why I have a bias towards distribution.  It’s not because I think distribution is an inherently better lever. Truthfully, it’s probably an inferior lever.  But it’s just a bit easier to pull off.  In the startup world, the odds are so stacked against you.  If you can continually make decisions that move the odds slightly more in your favor, you give yourself the best chance of catching a few lucky breaks.


The second reason I have a bias towards distribution is because even if you nail product, it doesn’t guarantee success.  More often than not, the difference between commercial success and commercial failure is the distribution.  A great example of this is Kickstarter’s coolest cooler, which raised $13M and is the most successful Kickstarter project of all time.

So what is the coolest cooler?  Well, it is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s like the fucking swiss-army-knife-Megatron-bad-ass-MoFo of coolers with everything from a built-in blender to stereo speakers to LED lights to help you locate your beverage after the sun goes down.  Is it 10X better than the competition? Dude, seriously? IT HAS A BLENDER IN IT!!!!!! it’s probably 20X better than the competition.

So, they had this amazing product.  It must have just sold itself, right?

Of course not.

I think the most interesting part of the Coolest Cooler story is that it wasn’t initially a success.  The dude who pulled in $13M for his cooler, posted the same cooler on Kickstarter eight or nine months before and only reached $100,000 of his $125,000 goal.

So what changed? He made a few tweaks to the design and launched it in the summer when people were thinking about margaritas. But the biggest difference between the two campaigns is that the second time around he had a bunch of loyal fans from his first campaign who were willing to shout from the rooftops to get the word out from the start.  These raving fans were enough to seed the campaign, build momentum and get the flywheel spinning.  From there, the press [i.e. a distribution channel] got hold of it and it took off.

In essence, during the first go-around, Dude had great product but no distribution strategy. When he got a second bite at the apple, he succeeded because he had figured out how to play the game; second time around, he already had his distribution channel built-in.

Same product.  Different distribution strategy.  Wildly different results.

Here’s another example:

A few months back I wrote a blog called “Nobody has a clue what they are doing.”  It was an decent post, but certainly nothing groundbreaking or novel. For the most part, no one really cared about it.  Then, a few days in, a VC by the name of Hunter Walk found it and tweeted it out to his eight-five thousand followers.  Shortly after that, Marc Andreessen who must have seen it on Hunter’s feed, tweeted it out to his two-hundred-eighty thousand followers.  And then BOOM!  All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone in the startup universe got blog FOMO, shared it like a billions times on Twitter and collectively decided it was a brilliant post.

Hooray! I just nailed distribution.  My formula: create a okay-to-solid product, catch a lucky break, and then stumble my way into the distribution jackpot of Hunter Walk and Marc Andreessen.  For about one day, I won the Internet.

So, if my blog was a startup and I wanted to scale it, what would my next steps be?  Well, I’d basically have two choices, the product route or the distribution route.  I could either magically become a really smart, insightful, amazing writer like Tim Urban at Wait but Why and draw people to my blog because of my brilliant writing (odds of this are about nil) or I could try to build a relationship with Hunter Walk and Marc Andreessen so that when I write decent-to-above-average blog posts in the future, I can ask them to tweet them out for me.  Neither of these are easy to pull off, but the latter is slightly more feasible.


To become a company that can last for decades, you really need both great product and great distribution. The point of this blog post isn’t to say, you should only focus on one lever for eternity. That would be silly. The point is help you think about which lever to focus on first.   If you’re a first-time founder and you don’t initially have the resources to bring a Tony Fadell into your team, you’ll likely increase your odds of success by focusing more of your early energy on distribution.  Once you’ve achieved product market fit and you have figured out enough of the distribution side to see real adoption, find your Tony Fadell, inspire him or her to join your team, and go out to build your 10X-better-product that changes the world.


some great blog posts (several of which take a different view point than this post) see below:

Short reads:

How to Avoid Delusional Thinking In Startup Growth Strategy

Why You Should Find Product Market Fit Before Sniffing Around For Venture Money

Why Growth Hacking Isn’t BS

Long Reads:

Zero to One

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150M+1 New Reasons to be Thankful at Techstars

Earlier this week David Cohen wrote a wonderful blog post entitled, 150M New Reasons to be Thankful at Techstars where he announced a massive new $150M Techstars fund for early-stage ventures involved with the Techstars network. In the post, David gave thanks to the people who helped make Techstars what it is today.  Of course, with typical David humility, he failed to include one very important person: David Cohen is reason 150M+1 to be thankful for Techstars.

David invested in GiveForward as part of his original $5M fund back in 2010.  He has been one of our biggest advocates over the past four years and there is no way we’d be where we are today without him.  I can’t truly thank him for what he has created, but here are a few of the things I am grateful for.


I’ll never forget our first big conversation with David.  It was shortly after Excelerate Labs Demo Day in 2010 and we were sitting in the board room of a Chicago VC who had just offered us a term sheet with horrible terms.

We were scheduled to have a call with David right after our meeting with the VC.  But the meeting ended up going an hour long, so we awkwardly asked the VC firm if we could use their boardroom to make a call to another investor.  When we got David on the phone, we let him know of the situation.  We told him that we were excited to get our first term sheet.  But the term sheet kinda sucked.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have any other offers and we didn’t know what to do.  We were a little paranoid that the VCs were listening in on our conversation, so we whispered into the speakerphone: “David, they want to give us $1 million at a $2 million post money valuation.  Should we take it?”  Without any hesitation, David whispered back.  “Run.  Run away as fast as you can!”

This turned out to be great advice.  We declined the offer and instead managed to close a $500K seed round with a group of incredibly supportive angel investors, among them David Cohen.

Belief in Us

After we closed our seed round we didn’t have much interaction with David for awhile.  He told us that he was going to be a “passive” investor, and for the first few months, I don’t think we recieved an email from David longer than six or seven words.  But in the third month of our relationship, everything changed.

On April 14th, 2011, we sent out our monthly investor update.  The title of that month’s investor update was called:  The Power of Hugs.  Here was the actual intro paragraph.

This month, the theme of our newsletter is hugs. I know you’re probably thinking “Hugs?!?!!  What the hell is he talking about? I want to hear about numbers.”  But I think it’s important for you all to understand GiveForward beyond just our revenue and monthly traffic numbers [which are really good this month by the way].  I think it’s important for you all to understand our culture which is the foundation for everything we do.  So without further ado, let me tell you about the power of hugs.

I remember feeling really insecure and almost deleting the entire email before hitting send.  We had just closed our seed round with all these high-powered investors. We had a billionaire in the group, an entrepreneur who had taken his company public, a dude whose name was on the U. Chicago business school, and several other uber-successful tech founders. My partner Desiree and I, on the other hand had no idea what the hell we were doing and I was about to send an email telling them about the power of hugs.  Um, yeah, great idea, Ethan.

After mustering up all the courage I had in my entire body, I finally decided not to delete it.  Instead, I hit send, closed my eyes and hid under my desk, confident that I was going to get laughed out of the room and they were going to ask if they could take all their money back.

To my surprise, David wrote back the following email to us and cc’d all of the investors.

You are simply awesome. Your updates are awesome. Your outlook is awesome. You are inspiring.  I love companies that care. It’s how I try to build companies too – the rest usually “just works”. And I love the 85/15 thought. Spot on.  Congrats on the progress. I’m back in Boulder or I would have loved to hang in NYC. I’m coming to Chicago in early June, let’s be sure to get together then.

He signed it,


For me, this singular email was a huge turning point in my career as an entrepreneur.  It gave me so much confidence that we could be ourselves without worrying about being second guessed by our investors because we were a little unorthodox in our approach.  The fact that three months into our relationship with our new investors, David was not only tolerant of our weirdness but that he embraced it, meant everything to us and gave us the courage to go out and build a great company and a culture we could be proud of.


By far, one of the most important things an investor can do for you is intro you to other VCs and investors. In this regard, I cannot think of a better person in the universe than David Cohen. David literally intro’d us to all of our Series A VCs and several of our angels.  Founder Collective, First Round Capital, Jason Seats, Howard Lindzon, Tom Peterson – all of them are investors in GiveForward because of introductions that David made for us.  I often joke that what you say in your pitch meeting is less important than who introduces you.  But it’s not entirely untrue.

And it’s not only investors.  David has connected us to all sorts of people through his network.  One that stands out in particular to me was Rand Fishkin. A few years back I was struggling with how we could build a strong company culture.  I asked David who was the best person he knew who could help us build this strong culture.  A few hours later, David hooked me up with one of my business idols, Rand Fishkin, who was kind enough to jump on a call with me.  Rand gave me advice about values and culture that stuck with me ever since and had a profound impact on our company.


In 2012, David invited us to present to the LPs of his Bullet Time Ventures Fund at their annual meeting in Boulder.  Only three or four of his portfolio companies presented and the other ones were bigger companies like Twilio and Mocavo. I remember it felt like a really big honor to be invited.  But more than anything what stood out to me about that trip was how David went out of his way to make me feel comfortable while visiting. He not only offered me a spot to crash on his couch and took me to my favorite Boulder eatery for lunch (Chipotle), he went out of his way to organize a meetup with a handful of local entrepreneurs so I would have people to hang out with at night.  That’s just the way David rolls.  He’s good people.  All the people in his universe are good people.  And that’s what makes him so awesome.   He cares about you as a person as much as he cares about you as a portfolio company. He’s not just an investor.  I consider him a friendvestor and someone I know I’ll be able to count on for the rest of my life.


whatsapp techstars

The Whatsapp Message I sent to David when I heard the news about the $150M new fund.

Last but not least, when David invested in GiveForward, he brought us into his family.  Not his biological family, but his Techstars family.  And it truly does feel like a family – a crazy one, but one that I’m extremely proud to be a part of.  Thank you, David, for bringing us in.

PS – also thankful for the introduction to Whatsapp before it was an $18B company, for helping my friend land a job in Portland, for connections to guys like Brad Feld and Micah Baldwin and for always being there when we’ve needed it. Fistbump

The Habit of No

via the

Most people at startups are in the habit of saying yes.

This new year if you are looking for a resolution that will transform your startup, get in the habit of saying no.

The Habit of Yes

The habit of yes occurs when a founder asks you to help him with something that “will only take half an hour,” or when a co-worker asks you sneak in a “quick” bug fix to the weekly sprint because it’s an “easy fix and should only take ten minutes.” We’ve all been there and our natural inclination is to say yes.

There are lots of reasons why we say yes but most of them have to do with the fact that saying no feels rude. Yes, on the other hand, leads to happy co-workers, happy founders and a conflict-free environment. Yes, for lack of a better word, is nice. It is pleasant. It is agreeable. And everyone likes yes.

The Danger of Yes

But yes is a dangerous habit to fall into. Saying yes here and there might seem harmless. But all those little yeses add up. They compound on each other, and they can transform a decisive strategy with clear objectives into an all-you-can-eat buffet of tactics and activities with no common goal.

The true cost of yes is far greater than most of us realize. When we say yes to the small things, we’re also saying yes to switching costs. We’re saying yes to scope creep. We’re saying yes to shipping late.

Falling into the habit of yes is like running a marathon where every three miles you decide to run in a different direction for a quarter mile before getting back on course.

The habit of yes means never crossing the finish line before your competitors, or worse yet, never crossing at all.

Everyone wants to be respectful of their co-workers but invariably saying yes to every request is actually disrespectful to the company. Yes leads to mediocrity. Yes is execution’s achilles heel. Yes is a non-confrontational cop-out. It circumvents the reality that we need to make hard choices.

Ultimately, yes isn’t respectful. Yes is the insidious startup killer.

The Habit of No

The habit of no is one of the healthiest habits your startup can develop.

At its most basic level, the habit of no is about accepting the reality that all ideas are not equal. The habit of no means ruthlessly prioritizing ideas, setting goals and then sticking to them. No is having the conviction to eliminate the good in order to get to the great.

The Path To Greatness is Paved with No

The reason that no is so important is simple: no company has ever achieved greatness by being good at ten different things. They achieve greatness by being best-in-the-world at one thing.

The best companies have a singular thesis about what the future looks like and then maniacally execute against that thesis. They ignore the outside noise. They know exactly where they are going and then say no to any ideas that don’t take them closer to achieving their goal.

Take Google for example. Today Google offers everything from cloud storage to grocery delivery but that is not how Google won the Internet. Google won the Internet because long before you could use Google to video chat with Nana halfway across the country, Google figured out how do one thing 10X better than anyone else in the world: sell ads on the search engine results page.

The same idea can be applied to investing in public stock markets. No one has ever become a billionaire by betting on index funds. Investors win big when they have a thesis about what the future looks like and then place all their chips on the sector or company they think has the greatest chance of creating that future. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. The startup world is exactly the same.

Moonshot or Bust

To fully understand why the habit of no is so critical for startups, it’s necessary to understand the binary dynamic of how venture-backed startups operate.

If you are at a venture-backed startup, by definition your singular objective is growth. You’re not aiming for single or double digit growth. You’re shooting for 1000% YoY growth.

Your objective is to land a moonshot or die trying.

Startups that fall into the habit of yes never hit the moon. Instead, they divide their time between a handful of activities and end up doing all of them at a B+ level. In the real world getting a B+ is an okay outcome, but in the binary world of startups a B+ is the same as an F. B+ work might get you 85% towards the moon, but it will never, ever, ever get you all the way there.

Once you realize that B+, A- or even A work isn’t good enough to hit the moon, it necessarily changes the way you have to operate.

Developing a Habit of No at Your Startup

When a startup has a culture of yes, the people who have the courage to say no may get labeled as unhelpful, selfish or “not a team player.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The habit of no is actually all about teamwork. It’s about acknowledging what is required for everyone to reach a common goal, respecting this common goal and giving your company and your co-workers the best shot of achieving it.

If your startup’s goal is to land on the moon, the next time someone asks you to do something that pulls you off course from achieving this goal, you should politely decline.

If you’re afraid you might ruffle some feathers, share this blog post with them in your response.

Or even better yet, have an open discussion with them. Show them your prioritized list of tasks you are working on in order to achieve the overarching company goals. Once all the information is on the table, decide together if the new task is more or less likely to move you closer to your company goals.

The habit of no can be scary but it can also be transformative. It starts with one person and then it spreads. It’s certainly not the easiest habit to develop, but if you can commit to keeping your head down — to executing on a common goal, and inspiring others around you to do the same, you might all look up one day and realize: “Holy shit! We’re on the moon.”

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No One Has Any Clue What They Are Doing

dog no idea cart

I recently asked a friend who just finished his first year as an associate at a big VC firm what was the biggest thing he learned in his first year.

His answer:  “No one has any clue what they are doing.”

“What??”  I said to him.  “How is that possible?  You guys are printing money. Don’t you have some type of magic formula?”

“You’d be surprised,” he responded.  “Almost all the decisions are just kind of based on gut.”

When you’re on the outside looking in, it always seems like the people on the inside know what they are doing. They seem smart and confident and generally on top of their shit.  But when you’re on the inside, you know the truth:  Everyone is clueless.  Those who try to tell you otherwise are suffering from delusions of grandeur.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.  Last month, the tech media fell in love with a new startup touting them as the ‘next big thing’. Everyone from TechCrunch to NPR was writing about them as their user base grew from zero to millions overnight.

I was lucky enough to get an insider’s look at this hypergrowth, as their CEO and I are on the same founders’ email distribution list. While the CEO may have appeared cool as a cucumber to the public, in front of his peers, in the “circle of trust” that is our founders-only email list, he was scrambling like mad, asking a million questions a minute and seeking advice from anyone willing to offer help.

I’m sharing this with you not because he is a fraud that needs to be exposed, but rather because he is the norm.

The emperor has no clothes.  He never does.  Even the great CEOS — Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Hsieh, Elon Musk — as cool as they may appear on the outside,  I guarantee they’re just as scared and insecure as the other seven billion people with whom they share this planet.

And of course, this doesn’t just apply to tech founders and VCs.  It applies to everyone in the freaking universe.  (except for maybe this guy)

The moral of the story here is that if you ever think to yourself, I’m not smart enough or I’m not brave enough, or I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough to do X, you are wrong.  No one doing X is any smarter or braver than you are.  The only thing that makes them different is that they have learned to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

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I’m Donating $2500 to Fight Climate Change and I Will Pay You to Join Me

Climate March NYC

400,000 people march on Sept 21, 2014 to force action on climate change

Yesterday, 400,000 people marched in New York City to demand U.N. action on Climate Change.   According to Time Magazine:
“The showing was the largest climate protest in history and largest social demonstration of the past decade.”
All I can say is WOW!!  If this wasn’t THE wake up call, I’m not sure we are ever going to wake up.
In the spirit of yesterday’s Climate March, I’m pledging to donate up to $2500 to Climate Cycle, a K-12 climate change education non-profit based in Chicago.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help, here’s what you can do right now.
Tell the fossil fuel industry that you’re breaking up with them, and then drop them like a bad habit.   In fact, I’ll even give you $30 to do it.
It’s actually a lot easier than you think.
A few months back, I came across an incredible startup called Arcadia Power that gives people the opportunity to switch their electric bills from dirty fossil fuels to 100% clean renewables with just a few clicks.  It’s like Geico.  Except 15 minutes doesn’t save you 15%.  It saves Miami.
I was so inspired by what they are doing, I decided to become an advisor (disclosure, I have a tiny amount of equity in the company) and shortly thereafter I made the switch to 100% clean energy myself.  In the first month alone, I planted the equivalent of seven trees and prevented twenty-eight gallons of gasoline from going into our atmosphere.  Awesome, right?
I’m sharing this with you all today because knowledge = power.  Like the cab companies fighting Uber right now, the energy companies have had monopolies in this space for a very long time.  They’d like you to believe they’re still the only show in town.  While that used to be true a few years ago, it’s not true anymore.
You have a choice.   If you want to make the switch to clean energy, use the promo code below and you’ll get $30 off your first Arcadia Power electric bill.  
For every person that signs up in the next 30 days using the promo code, I will make a matching $30 donation to Climate Cycle, up to $2500.
Win-Win :)
Here’s the code.  Please feel free to share it with friends.  And thanks for being part of the solution.
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Michael Brown, Ferguson and the Problem We’re All Ignorning

Michael Brown Housing discrimination

As we near the 30-day mark from when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, I’m glad that our country has taken the opportunity to bring issues of racial profiling and the militarization of our police force into the national spotlight. But as we begin to examine our country’s race issues under a microscope, I hope we don’t just look at the issues on the surface – the ones that are acute and obvious and make for good television ratings.  Examining these issues is a necessary start but it’s not the finish line.

What I mean by that is that we have a tendency in this country to distort our priorities based on the squeakiest wheel rather than focusing on the insidious problems that pose the greatest threat. Pink ribbons, for instance, drive sales and marketing budgets. As a result, we spend seven times as much on cancer research as we do on obesity even though obesity and it’s partner-in-crime, type 2 diabetes, is what will eventually bankrupt our healthcare system. Fear mongering is another example. Peddling fear leads to votes come election time. As a result, we’ve spent trillions of dollars over the past fourteen years fighting terrorism. Yet, we refuse to spend any money fighting climate change, when in fact, the slow but steady creep of climate change poses a far greater threat to our existing way of life.

My fear with the Michael Brown tragedy is that we’re heading down this same pathway on the issue of race. Racial profiling is certainly an important issue but it’s not THE issue we should all be focusing on. It’s a secondary issue that doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Rather, if we want to truly honor Michael Brown’s life we must start a deeper national dialogue, not on racial profiling, but about why racial profiling exists.

[Disclaimer: This blog post has nothing to do with startups nor delicious, delicious burritos. But I think the issues we’re facing right now as a nation are too important not to write about.  So, if you’ve never given a thought as to why racial profiling exists, I hope this blog post can serve as a starting point.]

Kobe Bryant, Stars and Bars, and the Black Guy on the El.

I guess I should start by giving you my background.  I grew up in a city in California with like three black people. Kobe Bryant was one of them. Dennis Rodman was another. And for a brief period, Karl Malone was the third. I didn’t see racism growing up. All I saw were white people. For most of my childhood, I never gave racism much thought.

This changed for the first time when I went to college. I went to school in Atlanta. While the city of Atlanta did not appear outwardly racist, I remember taking my first road trip outside the city and stopping at a gas station filled with confederate flags souvenirs. I thought to myself “what the fuck? They really must not like black people at this gas station.” Shockingly to me, the next gas station was exactly the same. And the next one after that was the same. Holy shitballs. They were all the same.

And that’s when I came to realize that gas stations in the south are not for black people.

The next year, I remember taking another road trip with some of my Phi Delt fraternity buddies. We went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which also had a Phi Delt chapter. We knocked on the door to see if we could come hang out for a bit. They were totally cool and told us to come in. That is until they realized that a few of our members were black. Then they told us we couldn’t come in.

And that’s when I came to realize that the South is not for black people.

After graduating college, I moved up to Washington, DC to start law school. During the 2004 presidential election, I volunteered with a bunch of other law students to go to West Philadelphia and serve as poll watchers to make sure that black voters were not being intimidated out of voting. I’d heard of these types of shenanigans happening in the south, but I had a hard time believing anything like this could happen in West Philadelphia. Sure enough, about two-thirds through an otherwise uneventful election day, we encountered a group of white dudes driving up to polling stations in a black suburban with out-of-state plates trying to intimidate black people out of voting.

And that’s when I came to realize that the North is not for black people either.

Fast forward to 2014, I was on the El in Chicago. The train was super crowded and this black dude with neck tattoos and a bunch of papers in his hand gets on next to me. He starts asking everyone for ten cents, twenty cents or fifty cents to make some copies of the fliers. No one responds. In fact most people in the vicinity put their head down to avoid eye contact with him. I started talking to him and asked him what was going on. It turns out his uncle was murdered the week before and he was putting up fliers with the picture of the suspect on every El train in the city. He had come in by bus from a neighboring state with no money and had been sleeping on the El train at the end of each night. He hadn’t showered in two or three days but was determined to catch his uncle’s killer even if he had to spend the next week sleeping on the train, away from his wife and four month-old-twins. Exasperated by peoples’ utter lack of compassion, he starts telling me how no one was helping him because he’s black. I thought about it for a second, and then sadly, I concurred and told him he was right.

And that’s when I came to realize that the Midwest is not for black people either.

So if the South is not for black people, and the North is not for black people, and the Midwest is not for black people, where is the place for black people?

The ghetto. The ghetto is for black people.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve come to realize the same thing black people realize at a very young age – that America has a racism problem. It’s not a Southern problem. It’s not a Northern problem. It’s not a Midwestern problem. It’s an everywhere problem.

Now, as ugly as all these experiences were, none of them made me nearly as sad as what I would learn just a few months ago when I clicked a link on my Facebook feed.

Donald Sterling, Bomani Jones and America’s History of Housing Discrimination

In the midst of the seemingly buffoonish Donald Sterling-Clippers saga this past April, I stumbled upon a video of ESPN analyst Bomani Jones speaking out about how housing discrimination was the real evil in the whole Donald Sterling scandal. “Housing discrimination?” I thought to myself. “What is that?” What I would learn was eye-opening and disturbing.

Housing discrimination is the insidious evil that has plagued our country since the end of the civil war. Through housing discrimination we have systematically created an America for white people and a separate America for black people. Housing discrimination is the root cause of the ghettoization of black America.  It has robbed generations of African Americans from trillions of dollars of accumulated wealth and has placed an entire race in an endless cycle of violence and generational poverty.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, here are the spark notes.

(1) Housing discrimination started with bigotry: In the post-civil war era, white people saw whites as a superior race and blacks as an inferior race.  If you were black in post-civil war America, white people didn’t want you living in their neighborhoods for fear that you would rape their daughters and bring sin upon their race.

(2) State sponsored discrimination: In order to keep you out of their neighborhoods, federal, state and local governments worked in collusion with banks, mortgage lenders, appraisers and real estate agents to enact racist laws and business practices to prevent you and your family from living amongst white people.  For instance until 1917, fifteen states had laws on the books denying black people from living in white zoned neighborhoods.  From 1917-1948 nineteen states allowed real estate developers to place restrictive covenants into their deeds forbidding white property owners from selling to blacks.  It wasn’t until 1968 (103 years after the end of the Civil War) that the federal government finally made it illegal to outwardly discriminate against black people in the housing industry.

(3) Terrorism: During this period, if you somehow managed to navigate around the laws and restrictive covenants forbidding you from living in a white neighborhood, white supremacist neighborhood associations created for the sole purpose of keeping blacks out, would instigate a mob to swarm around your house and terrorize you and your family with violence until you agreed to sign away the deed to your house and move back to the neighborhood where you belonged.  That’s what happened in the northern states.  If you were a black family trying to exercise your constitutional rights in the South, there was a good chance you would just be lynched.

(4) Ghettoization:   Forbidden from living anywhere else, you were forced into segregated ghettos.  The creation of the ghetto was 100% intentional.  It was the result of state sponsored housing discrimination and outright terrorism.   The goal was to keep you where they belonged.

(5) Systematic theft:  To add insult to injury, even if you had the means to own a home in the ghetto, you were denied access by the federal government to mortgage loans offered to white people.  This practice was known as redlining.  Without access to capital your only option for owning a home was to buy an overpriced property through a predatory practice known as contract buying, where the title to a property would not be transferred to you, the buyer, until all contract payments had been made.  If you missed a single payment, you forfeited the house and all prior payments. The owner of the house would then kick you and your family to the street and sell it again to another unsuspecting black family

(6) Generational poverty:  Faced with nearly insurmountable hurdles to homeownership, you, along with most other black families ended up renting instead of owning, all the while paying exorbitant rents to slumlords who allowed their properties to become dilapidated because knew you had no other options. While white Americans began to accumulate wealth and pass this wealth on to their children through homes purchased using subsidized capital from the U.S. Government, you and other African Americans were intentionally impoverished and systematically denied the ability to pass on generational wealth.

The end results of housing discrimination have been disastrous for this country.  Think about this: where you live affects everything in your life.  It affects your safety, the schools you attend, the role models you see in your neighborhood, your chances of incarceration, and ultimately your opportunities for work.   All these factors compound on each other creating a feedback loop that is near impossible to escape. By choosing to institutionalize our racism through local, state and federal housing laws, we have chosen to create two different Americas — one where the American dream exists and one where it doesn’t. And what’s really fucked up, is that most of us are okay with that.

Michael Brown, Accountability and Changing the National Dialogue.

There’s no denying that we’re failing as a country when it comes to the issue of race. At the very least, it’s time to look in the mirror and start asking ourselves why.

In the case of Michael Brown, it’s easy to single out the police as the bad guys. It’s easy to call them racist and place all the blame on them. But singling out the police is a cop out (no pun intended). In doing so, we attempt to absolve ourselves of any blame. We try to limit the scope of our country’s race problems to a few rotten apple police officers, when the reality is it’s not just a few apples that are rotten – it’s the entire system. At the epicenter of this system is housing discrimination. And whether through commission or omission, we’ve all helped to create it.

When we don’t speak out about racism, we are the problem.   When we accept as normal and never think twice about the fact that white people and black people don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we are the problem. And when we see Frankenstein kill another black teen, and then blame Frankenstein but fail to acknowledge our very role in creating the monster, we are very much the problem.

Change starts with taking responsibility for the system we created. As long as we choose to continue segregating our cities, robbing our black youth of quality educations, and impoverishing 10% of our population — we’re going to continue fostering an environment for high urban murder rates, racial profiling and the killing of unarmed black teens.

If we really want to see change in this country, we must stop looking at the surface for answers and hoping one will magically appear. We’ve seen this narrative enough times to know that it doesn’t change. Scapegoating the police is not going to solve our problems. Eventually, we’re going to need to look a lot deeper both into our history and within ourselves and come to grips that we are all part of the problem. And until that day happens, we can safely conclude that America is not for black people.

Further Reading 

If you’re interested in further reading about the issue of housing discrimination, here are three pieces of various lengths that heavily influenced my thinking.

10 min – Bomani Jones Nails the Part of the Controversy Everyone Has Ignored  (Eye-opening.  At least it was for me)

1 hour –  The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nihisi Coates  (this essay is the single most powerful piece of writing I’ve read in years)

1 week – The Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle  (Excellent book about housing discrimination in 1920s Detroit. Reads like a novel)

















Magic Happens When We Stop Being Bystanders

98% of the time we stand by idly and watch life go by.  When we see a tragedy or injustice on the news, we say “what a shame” and then we flip the channel and proceed to do NOTHING about it, as we expect someone else will step up and help.  There’s an actual psychological  term for this.  It’s called bystander apathy.

This  phenomenon refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. 

But a year ago, when a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this nation made a collective decision that we were not going to be bystanders.   Ariana Vargas was one of these people. Ariana had attended Boston College for undergrad and when the bomb hit, word spread quickly that one of her BC classmates Patrick Downes and his new wife Jessica had each lost a leg in the explosion. Over the course of their lifetimes, their  injuries would cost them nearly $1million.  Whispers were going around between BC alumni asking what they could do to help but no one was sure what to do or who should step up.  Without hesitating, Ariana who hadn’t stayed in touch with Patrick since graduating, started a GiveForward page. Word spread quickly and within a few weeks,  tens of thousands of people from around the country had contributed close to $900,000 and left thousands of comments on Patrick and Jessica’s GiveForward page letting them know that they were loved and that they weren’t alone.  It was magical, the kind of experience that makes you realize that we live in a world filled with wonderful people.

patrick and jessica Boston Marathon

Today, with the help of thousands around the world, Patrick and Jessica are on their way to recovery and will be able to live without the stress and burden of medical debt for the rest of their lives.

If Ariana had decided to be a bystander that day, none of this would have happened.

While this is a remarkable story in itself, the most amazing part about this story is that Ariana’s act of courage didn’t stop with Patrick and Jessica.  A couple weeks ago, Jeff Martin, a Michigan State fan living in Virginia read a story by Joe Rexrode in the Detroit Free Press about the friendship between Michigan State star basketball player, Adreian Payne and 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth who was fighting cancer.  Jeff didn’t know Lacey or Adreian personally but when he read in the article that the family was raising money for Lacey’s medical bills, Jeff decided he wasn’t going to be a bystander.

So he started a GiveForward page for Lacey with a modest goal of $2000 and low expectations.

A few days after Jeff started the fundraiser, I had stumbled across his page. The story was beautiful and it hit me right in the heart. I emailed Jeff and asked him what motivated him to start a page for a family he didn’t know.  And here’s the amazing part — he told me that a year ago he had donated to a fundraiser on GiveForward for a couple named Pat and Jess who had been injured in the Boston Marathon.  Seeing people across the country come together for Pat and Jess inspired Jeff, and so he decided there was nothing stopping him from doing the same thing for someone else.

Ariana’s act of courage had a ripple effect.

As it turns out, I  wasn’t the only one touched by Lacey and Adreian’s story.  Within a week, the whole world would know the story of their friendship.  The story was picked up everywhere from CNN to the Today Show to Good Morning America and Jeff’s GiveForward page quickly hit $25,000 then $50,000, and then $75,000. For two weeks we all clicked on the adorable pictures and videos of Lacey and Adreian.  We cheered every time Adreian dunked and the TV camera panned over to Lacey cheering during the Mich St. games in Madison Square Garden.   It didn’t matter what college you normally rooted for.  For a brief moment in time, it felt like the whole world had become Michigan St fans.

Lacey Holsworth and Adreian Payne

And then like that, Michigan St lost to UCONN in the Elite Eight and a few days later  Lacey was gone.  Cancer took her life on April  9th.

That morning I got an email from a co-worker at 6 AM with subject line “Sad News.  Lacey passed Away.” An hour later, I got a text from my mom with the same bad news.  I read the article on CNN and couldn’t help but cry.  As quickly as she had entered our lives, she was taken from us.

But in the short two weeks that Lacey was part of our lives, in this weird way, I felt like I knew her.  We all felt that way. She managed to touch our hearts so profoundly and teach the entire world about courage, love and the true meaning of friendship.

I am thankful that Lacey  entered my life for a brief moment.  And I’m equally thankful for Jeff for having the courage to start the GiveForward page. He didn’t know Lacey’s family and he  had no idea what would happen once he started the page. They could have reacted horribly or been offended by his gesture.  He took a risk that he would fall flat on his face, but he did it anyway, because on that day, he decided he wasn’t going to be a bystander.

Because he had the courage to take that risk, the world was better for it.

And I think that is awesome.  So, today on the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing, I encourage everyone for this one day to stop being a bystander. Let’s honor those who lost their lives by pledging to live ours to the fullest.

Yes, it can be scary to live life out on the limb and put ourselves into a position of uncertainty where we might face rejection or failure.  But if we can train ourselves to live a little further out on that limb, even if it’s just for one day every year, we’ll start to see that life on the limb is where all the magic happens.  All the highs and lows of life, all the moments that make life worth living, they all happen when we stop being bystanders.

On April 15th, 2014 I’m choosing to live out on the limb.  For the next 24 hours, I hope you do too.



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You Don’t Have A Crowdfunding Problem. You Have a Purpose Problem


image from image from I Try, I Try, I Try

Last week I was speaking at a conference on a panel about crowdfunding.  During Q&A one of the audience members asked the following:

We have a crowdfunding problem.  The volunteers at our non-profit don’t fully understand the mission of our organization and it’s hard for them to feel passionate about what we do.  When we ask them to start crowdfunding campaigns on our behalf, they have trouble raising money.  What tips can you give us to help them have more successful campaigns?

This organization didn’t have a crowdfunding problem.  It had a purpose problem.  Organizations that don’t have a clear understanding of why they exist are going to find it impossible to share their stories effectively.  So before you start recruiting engineers, pitching angels, or asking volunteers to crowdfund for you, figure out the reason you wake up every morning pumped to come into work.  That’s your organization’s story.  Once you’ve figured this out, step two is to go to work and live that story everyday.

StoryLiving (not storytelling) is the kernel that will eventually sprout into your brand, which Tomasz Tunguz wisely points out is becoming increasingly critical to startups as barriers to entry drop and technology becomes commoditized.

At the end of the day, Crowdfunding is never going to be a magic bullet.  It is simply a communications tool to distribute and amplify your story.  If your story is no bueno, all crowdfunding is going to do is amplify how your no buenoness.  If you’re having trouble recruiting top talent, attracting angels or VCs, or crowdfunding your startup, look deeper than your recruiting process, your pitch deck or the crowdfunding platform you’re using.   Once you figure out your organization’s purpose, your story becomes clear and the rest begins to take care of itself.


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5 Things I Wish I Had Known When We Launched


Pathful CEO Campbell McDonald presenting at TechStars Chicago Demo Day 2013

Yesterday I attended the TechStars Chicago Demo Day and was blown away by the presentations.  If I had any money at all, I probably would have invested in 3 or 4 of the companies on the spot.  (PathfulFindIt, and SimpleRelevance particularly resonated with me).

As several of the TechStars companies are just now launching, it made me think back to August 2008 when we first launched GiveForward.  To be perfectly honest, even today five years after launching we still don’t have a clue how to run a company.  But back in 2008 we really, really, really had no clue.

So to all the TechStars Chicago companies who are just launching and wondering what the heck you’re supposed to be doing now that demo day is over, here are some of the things I wish I had known when we first launched.

(1)  Focus Is Everything.  Startups rarely die for a lack of ideas.  But they often die for a lack of focus.  Try to find the one thing you are really good at and then set out to do it better than anyone else in the world.  For us at GiveForward, this was customer service.

(2) Your Idea Is Poop. When we launched, we were dead certain we were going to be a crowdfunding platform for everything.  Turned out, no one wanted a crowdfunding platform for everything.  What our customers told us they wanted was a crowdfunding platform for medical expenses.  It took us a year to find product-market fit, and truthfully, it was really hard for us to give up on our original idea because it was our baby and giving up on it felt like failing.  But being flexible and willing to adapt was key to staying in the game long enough to catch our lucky break (getting into Excelerate Labs in 2010). Long story short – don’t get stuck on your original idea. Chances are it’s not going to be the one that makes you money.

(3) Do The Things That Don’t Scale.  As two non-technical, first-time founders with zero real world job experience, we focused our energy on the few things we were actually good at. One of the skills we had was simply being nice to people. This turned into an emphasis on customer service and tons of interaction with our customers.  At first, the goal was simply to inject a tiny bit of humanity into each interaction.  But these frequent interactions with our customers led to an ongoing dialogue.  We were unintentionally doing tons of customer development and learning about what our customers actually wanted. Eventually, after about a year of talking to our customers we discovered that we needed to pivot away from general crowdfunding and move towards medical crowdfunding.  At the end of the day, the pivot that transformed our business was really just luck – no more than a positive externality from doing the things that don’t scale.

(4) Define Your Core Values, Mission, Vision Early On.  Write them down. And then LIVE them.  It took us two years to write down our core values.  It took us three years to write down our mission and vision. I wish, wish, wish we had done this sooner.  Your values, mission and vision drive your culture, your recruiting and your retention. They give everyone in the company an understanding of not what you do but why you do it. They give people purpose. Once people find purpose, they have passion.

Passionate team members = the greatest competitive advantage known to man.

Here is a blog post written yesterday by our newest team member Mike Danko about why he’s leaving his current job to join our team at GiveForward.   He says it much more eloquently than I ever I could.

If you are interested in learning more about why I feel so strongly about culture and values, check out this blog post.

Also, the folks at MOZ and Zappos probably do this better than anyone else in the world.  Check out both their sites and I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness if you haven’t already read it.


If you’re in Vegas, and want to get an inside look at Zappos culture, take a free tour of Zappos’ Downtown Project. The tour goes right through Tony Hsieh’s actual apartment.

(5) Lastly, When Times Are Good, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Credit.  When Times Are Bad, Don’t Give Yourself Too Much Blame.  This one might be the most important lesson of them all (at least for your mental health).  As a founder, it’s easy to get down on yourself  if things aren’t going gangbusters out of the gate but the truth of the matter is that so much of what we consider success is really based on luck and good timing.   Many people in the startup world like to pretend that the equation for success is simply smarts + hard work.  Well, that’s a huge load of bullshit.  As Ryan Graves, head of global operations at Uber, mentioned yesterday at Demo Day, “hustle is trendy”.  Of course smarts and hustle are a prerequisite for success but no one becomes successful without the help of others.  What many of us forget  is that the real equation for success is smarts + hard work + a good amount of LUCK.  Our first mentor and board member, Tim Krauskoph shared this wisdom with us in 2010 two years after we launched.  Once we realized how much luck plays into success, it felt like a huge wave of relief washed over us.  It made both me and Desiree more humble and more self confident at the same time because we no longer judged ourselves through a distorted view of reality where the success or failure of our company all hinged on our every decision.   If you learn this lesson early on, it will probably save you a lot of heartburn down the road.

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