How to kill a dragon

Last month my friend Brian hung himself from a tree on a beach in Hawaii. His best friend called to relay the news and suddenly I felt empty. Not a Nirvana kind of emptiness. Not at all. The news simply gave my emotions the excuse they needed to flee into whatever compartment they keep ready for times like this.

Brian and I met in grad school so I passed the news along to our program and to many of the alumni who knew him. I was surprised by some of the responses. Some broke down into tears, some denied that this could be true and questioned my source, some were enraged because Brian hadn't reached out to them for support. Everyone reacts in their own way.

Those in denial had reason to be. Brian excelled. He was an academic star, travelled the world, had a packed social life, and was doing exciting research on the impact of technology on women in the developing world. We spent many happy days hiking and rock climbing together. To all appearances, he was healthy, hearty, and happy. Who would believe he could kill himself?

Those that were angry had reason to be. His suicide didn't just leave behind distraught friends. He was a father figure to his two younger siblings (18 and 20 years old) and now they are essentially left to fend for themselves. Even if he was unhappy, how could he leave them on their own?

Those that broke down had reason to as well. Brian survived a difficult childhood and raised his siblings. Their mom died a few years ago from an aggressive form of blood cancer. His dad was never in the picture. The detectives in Hawaii turned over his journals after his death. They reveal that although Brian was outwardly happy, inside he was tormented beyond belief with paranoia, fear, and self-doubt.

The first half of 2014 has been a whirlwind. We heard about Brian the day after returning from a wonderful wedding of two close friends in Mexico. Drea ramped into her new job in San Francisco. We bought, renovated, and moved into a house in Oakland. I released my first novel. Our dear friend's visa was revoked because of a careless mistake by her employer, risking the loss of years of advanced genetics research. Her friend's toddler developed blood cancer. One of the companies I advise raised a successful Series B financing round. The tragic shooting at UCSB (my alma mater) shocked the world. I discovered the joy of roasting my own coffee. A close friend and mentor was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to get surgery immediately. I married the love of my life, Drea, last weekend in a redwood grove.

We've heard similar stories from many others. Hell, our friend who's an accomplished therapist said that for the first time in her life she's been talking to yoga teachers whose students blow up and throw chairs at them!

I'm not sure what's in the air but I do know what it means: this is the season of being there for each other. Drea and I recently went hiking on one of the trails we had conquered with Brian months before. More than anything else, his suicide was confusing. Why would he have gone to such an extreme? What could be done to help prevent future tragedies? We discussed the dire state of our nation's mental health system and any other take-aways we could work out.

The stigma around depression is insidious. Depression is so difficult to wrestle with because it blurs the lines between temporary mood and chronic illness, it makes friends uncomfortable and frustrates confidantes, it makes those who suffer self-conscious about telling others about it. I told Drea about how I had been moved by Brad Feld's candid writing on his own struggles with depression. By sharing the struggle with family, friends, and the public, this kind of transparency empowers others to open up about their own issues. Honesty takes serious guts. Overcoming the emotional barriers to admit and explore something that's taboo is inspiring.

Our close friend Derek told us a story last week. His six year old grandson was visiting and they were exploring the basement together. He pointed to the door on the left, "What's in there grandpa?"

"Lot's of canned foods and supplies for the kitchen," said Derek.

The grandson pointed to the door ahead of them, "What's in there grandpa?"

"Oh, those are all your grandmothers files, nothing too exciting," said Derek.

The grandson pointed to the door on the right, "What's in there grandpa?"

"I don't know," responded Derek, entirely truthfully. "I have no idea. Maybe dragons?"

"Dragons!" said the grandson, eyes lighting up. "Get me a broomstick!"


"A broomstick!"

After a quick search, Derek returned with a broomstick and handed it to the grandson.

"What are you going to do?" asked Derek.

"You're going to open the door," said the grandson. "And then I'll run in there and see what happens. Okay, go!"

Derek complied and the grandson rushed headlong into the dark room, smashing everything right and left. After a few seconds of commotion, grandpa hit the light switch, hoping that nothing too valuable or dangerous had been shattered. The light revealed the grandson stomping his foot into the floor with enthusiasm.

"What are you doing?" asked Derek.

"I'm killing the dragon, grandpa!" he said.

"But I don't see it," said Derek.

"You're silly, grandpa," said the grandson. "Don't you know how to kill dragons? If you run away from them they get bigger and bigger and you'll never escape. But if you charge them right away and face them down they get smaller and smaller until they disappear. I just squished it."

Brian's suicide shook us to our core. The Great Whirlwind of 2014 swept us off our feet. But everything that's happened this year, good and bad, has highlighted one thing: the most important thing is to be there for our loved ones. In the wake of Brian's death, an incredible community has emerged sharing stories, pictures, and help. With honesty in our hearts and friends at our sides, we are all equipped to face down the dragon.

Complement with what my secret agent grandmother taught me about stories worth dying for.


Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:

Do what matters

It's so damn easy to do things that don't matter. Inboxes grow to Godzilla proportions. Emails ferment into a slush pile of guilt and loose ends. Social media gushes content like a neighborhood full of broken fire hydrants. Happy hours and meetups whiz by like falling leafs in an autumn wind. Oh, and then there's laundry. The buzz is so seductive, so intoxicating, that it can suck away minutes, hours, days of your life. All it leaves behind are the skeletal vestiges of forgotten dreams.

Most people have a very short to-do list of things that really matter. Olympic athletes train to push the limits of their bodies. Doctors save lives. Sales people close deals. Inventors tinker. Here's my list:
  1. Craft stories worth reading. Write the next novel. Publish posts that move the needle. Delight readers. Become a better storyteller.
  2. Help others excel. Accelerate clients to radical success. Support creative projects. Help out friends in need. Improve people's lives. Engage with and inspire those around me.
  3. Live an interesting life. Cultivate community and serendipity. Spend time with loved ones. Pursue adventure in all forms.
Too often, I find myself messing around on Twitter or email. I take meetings that fill my schedule without advancing the ball. I let calls interrupt my creative time. I allow distractions to dictate my day.

Doing what matters isn't just satisfying. When you do what matters the results speak for themselves. They become evergreen accomplishments, milestones that you and others refer to for years. When you do what matters, you become a center of gravity for excellence. Opportunities seek you out instead of the other way around. 

If I'm not doing at least one of the things on my list, I'm not achieving my full potential. What's on your list? I've worked hard to keep this post short so that when you finish this sentence, you can go do what matters.

Complement with choose your own destiny, the "search" for meaning, and life lessons from a CIA agent turned NYT bestselling author.


Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:

The next big thing for those who already have it all: vanity companies

Franco Faraudo is a good friend and real estate/angel investor. A few months ago we had a highly entertaining conversation over dinner that I knew you guys would want to eavesdrop on. So I invited Franco to write a post on the topic of our chat: vanity companies. Without further ado, here’s Franco:

Many great businesses are not profit-driven. There are companies that pursue social change, strive to be environmentally friendly, or donate a portion of their profit to various great causes. This story is not about those companies. This story is about another type of business. One whose sole purpose is to provide the owner with a personal sense of accomplishment. I like to call these “vanity companies.”

To owners of vanity companies, success does not mean performance, profitability or ingenuity. Instead, they aspire to simply control an enterprise. More than money or power, these owners want something to tell their friends about at cocktail parties. Running a successful business takes time, thought and hard work. Starting a business only takes a trip to the Office of the Treasurer and $50 for the licensing fee.

From the outside looking in, a growing business and a stagnant one look similar. Private companies have few public reporting requirements. So some founders do just enough to create the appearance of success instead of laboring to achieve it. Owners of vanity companies tend to be on the high end of the socio-economic spectrum, usually the beneficiaries of large inheritances. Is complacency the bi-product of trust funds? I have no idea. But independent wealth can buy you a “CEO” title just as easily as it can buy you a yacht.

Most of the time vanity business owners don’t have bad intentions. They just want others to think they’re cool. But tragedy strikes when these owners convince others to contribute time and money into a business that exists only to satisfy the ego of the founder.

A long time friend of mine is currently working for a vanity business. I will call the owner Vincent Vain. Vinnie, as his friends call him, is the son of a wealthy businessman. He started an eco-friendly manufacturing company to follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps. Here we see an important component of a vanity company: universal attractiveness. No one wants to tell their friends that they started a hog slaughterhouse or a solvent disposal company. The vanity business needs to be sexy in order to achieve its ultimate goal of being a showpiece asset, or in most cases a showpiece liability. Vinnie chose to use environmental responsibility to achieve his desired level of sexiness. Who doesn’t want to be part of a green revolution?

But vanity determines far more than just the industry of choice. My friend works on the manufacturing side of the operation and is constantly at odds with a stream of seemingly unnecessary expenditures. As he put it, “We have done zero product testing, have sold nothing, but apparently we need a budget for social media marketing.” Not even a million Facebook likes or Twitter followers will help a company with a sub par product that has little to no interaction with the end user. What a shiny website and social media footprint does achieve, though, is a veneer of success. Now, the cocktail party guests can go home, Google Vinnie’s business, and have proof of boastful claims. Everything on the Internet is true, right?

Recently, my friend called me because Vinnie’s company had a stroke of luck. A major consumer product manufacturing company was interested in some environmentally friendly plastics and reached out to them as a potential supplier, asking for a demo. This could be the big break that they needed to gain some real traction and credibility. Also, it was an opportunity to have a big name logo to slather all over the myriad of marketing mediums.

Vinnie had just purchased a new formula for bio-plastic from a scientist that was touted as being eco-friendly, cost-effective and durable. The holy trinity of the plastic world, apparently. As the day of the meeting grew closer, the manufacturing staff was eager to test out the new product. “Unnecessary,” said Vinnie, “this stuff is proven to be the best.” Then the staff asked, “What about the proportions, isn’t this a two part product?” Vinnie replied, “It’s 50/50, easy.” Well, as the staff knew, nothing is that easy. “Is it by weight or volume, do we need to bring our scales our measuring cups?” Again, Vinnie shrugged this off, “They will have everything we need there.”

The day of the meeting finally came and the client’s research team assembled to see the product test in the parking lot of their massive campus. Vinnie had assumed they would be able to run the demo in the lab. Scrambling, Vinnie and his assistants found a red Dixie cup to measure ingredients, a stick to stir them together and a dirty bucket to pour them in to cure. The corporate research engineers stood around in a half circle, security tags blowing in the wind. Vinnie and associates did their best to get the untested plastic to set and perform as the scientist told them it would. No luck. The bucket full of plastic fell in on itself like a soggy Angel Food cake. Before any apologies or promises could be made, Vinnie and company were in the van driving off, with a crowd of confused, smirking engineers in the rear view mirror.

Vinnie’s example is extreme. His negligence and lack of preparedness cost him and his company any chance a great, big-name client. Many vanity owners  have the drive initially, but become complacent when the path to success turns out to be harder than just coming up with a business idea. As anyone that attended business school knows, when people find out about your degree they like to pitch you their great business ideas. More often than not these ideas consist of little more than a catchy name. Ideas aren’t businesses. The greatest name in the world won’t make a company profitable. When responding to would-be entrepreneurs, I find, it helps to critic people’s ideas gently. Most of them are designed to fish for complements, not get actual feedback. “It is not that I don’t think Jumpin Jack Hashbrowns isn’t a good idea, it just needs more market research.” Challenge their assumptions, but don’t destroy their fantasy. “Don’t get me wrong, A Million To Onesy would be a unique store, but would the general public understand the concept?”

Much like the posers of these questions, vanity owners see the finish line and not the race. Except for a rare few exceptions, a great idea is meaningless without competent execution. Vanity business owners enter into endeavors with good intentions, but once confronted with the inevitable hardships of business-building, they either do not make necessary adaptations, or they get so bogged down in the details that no significant progress is ever realized.

Whether as a prospective employee or investor, beware the of the tell-tail signs of a vanity business. Absentee owners, marketing tricks with no substance, and over promising of results should all be red flags that there might be something below the surface of the enterprise. Or, more likely, nothing.

If you can’t find the perfect gift for the person who has everything, you might want to consider giving them a shiny new company of their own. It’s the adult equivalent of a Superman costume, transforming ordinary citizens into entrepreneurs. Hopefully they won't break their shiny new toy.

How to Launch a Book in the Top Ten

Last month, bestselling author William Hertling hosted a guest post from me on running a successful book launch. If you haven't read it yet, I've included it below for your perusal. Go write the next blockbuster!

All writers, whether indie, small press, or large traditional publisher, must learn how to market themselves and their books. If they don't get the word out about their book, no one will buy it. (This is also true of musicians and businesses, and I think there's a lot that can be learned from these seemingly disparate areas.)

Eliot Peper is a friend and the author of Uncommon Stock a thriller about a tech startup. I really liked the book, but I also enjoyed watching Eliot's path to publication. Eliot graciously offered to share his lessons learned about the book launch, the all-important first month that helps establish a book on bestseller lists and get word-of-mouth going.

Without further ado, Eliot:

On March 5th my first novel, Uncommon Stock debuted at #8 in its category on Amazon. Will is one of my favorite indie authors and his advice, codified in Indie and Small Press Book Marketing played a critical role in shaping my launch plan. He generously offered to let me share some of my lessons learned along the way. I hope you can use some of these strategies to help launch your own bestsellers! I look forward to reading them.

Here’s what you need to do to launch in the top ten:
  1. Write a good book. Without one, none of this matters. It’s tempting to try to think up devious ways to growth hack your book but at the end of the day, it’s all a wasted effort if your content isn’t truly awesome. My perspective on successful titles is really simple: write a book good enough that people who don’t know you will recommend it to their friends. If you can do that, you can probably ignore the rest of this list anyway. 
  2. Don’t ask people to buy your book. “Buy my book” sounds like a used-car-salesman. “Read my book” sounds like an author.
  3. Influence influencers. If you already have a million Twitter followers and an oped in the New York Times then this won’t matter much to you. But if you’re a regular guy like me, then you’ll need help from people with platforms of their own to share your title. Brad Feld, a well known venture capitalist and tech blogger, shared Uncommon Stock via his blog and social channels and even temporarily switched his profile picture to the cover of the book. Why? Because I had been sending him drafts of the book since I finished writing Chapter 3. Will sums up the right approach to take with influencers of any kind (this includes media): give, give, give, give, ask. Do as many favors as you can think of for people and worry about the ROI later.
  4. Leverage your network. On/around launch day I sent ~200 individual personal emails, 2 email blasts to my list of ~600 members, published 3 blog posts, and flooded my social channels with content (you really only have an excuse to do this on Day 1). You need people to R3 your book: read, review, and recommend it. How can you inspire them to act? Create a sense of urgency (it’s launch day!) and tell them why their help is important (books that start strong snowball up Amazon’s algorithms).
  5. Cultivate gratitude and humility. Publishing is the path of 1000 favors. Every single person (including your mom) is doing you a solid by taking the time/money to purchase, read, and review your book. Think about how incredible it is that anyone at all is getting a kick out what reading what you write. Never stop telling people how much you appreciate their help, every little bit counts.
  6. Do something cool. It’s easier to get coverage and social media amplification if there’s more to talk about than the simple fact that it’s launch day. I created a Twitter account for Uncommon Stock’s protagonist (@MaraWinkel) and incited a Twitter battle with a few people with large followings. Heck, we even built a website for Mara’s startup and a major venture capital firm announced an investment in the fictional company.  This introduced new people to the story and was a talking point in itself.
  7. Do something cool. It’s easier to get coverage and social media amplification if there’s more to talk about than the simple fact that it’s launch day. I created a Twitter account for Uncommon Stock’s protagonist (@MaraWinkel) and incited a Twitter battle with a few people with large followings. Heck, we even built a website for Mara’s startup and a major venture capital firm announced an investment in the fictional company.  This introduced new people to the story and was a talking point in itself.
  8. All format release. Make sure your book is available in digital and print formats on launch day. I didn’t do this because we were slow getting the print version through typesetting and I know it resulted in significant lost sales. I’ve also had a couple dozen people reach out to ask where they can get the print copy (so there must be many more that didn’t reach out). That sucks. I want to DELIGHT my readers in every possible interaction they have with me.
  9. Recruit a cadre of advance reviewers. The more reviews you can get on Amazon as soon as possible the better. I sent advance review copies out to ~50 people a couple of weeks before launch. Then I pinged those people shortly before launch day reminding them how useful an honest review from them would be. Then I reminded them on launch day that now was the time! We debuted with 28 reviews.
  10. Be strategic. Choose Amazon categories that are specific and not too competitive. Reach out to your alma mater and try to get in the alumni newsletter. Pitch low-lying bloggers or reporters with concise, compelling stories. Snag some endorsements from folks that have actually read your book. Etc.
  11. Write another good book. There’s nothing more important than building a backlist. It gives fans more of what they want. It gives prospective readers a new path to discovering you. Plus, writing books is why you’re doing all of this anyway!
There are more details available on how launch week went for Uncommon Stock here. If you’re interested in an adventure through the world of tech startups, read it!

For further reading, I highly recommend Will’s Indie and Small Press Book Marketing. He shares extensive detail on his various successes as an indie author and it’s the only book you need to read in order to prepare for your own release. I’m particularly impressed by how he’s applied growth hacking techniques like A/B testing to optimize his reader funnel. You should also check out the following three posts. I’ve found them insightful and actionable throughout the launch:
Oh, and one final thing. Don’t forget to take time to celebrate! It’s all too easy to get caught up in all the noise on launch day. Make sure to take a moment to appreciate how friggin’ cool it is that readers finally have your book in hand.

Eliot Peper is a writer in Oakland, CA. His first novel, Uncommon Stock is a fictional thriller about a tech startup and the lead title for a new indie publishing company, FG Press. You can find it on Amazon and most major retailers. You can even download a free ten-chapter excerpt. When he’s not writing, Eliot works with entrepreneurs and investors to build new technology companies. He also blogs about writing, entrepreneurship, and adventure.

Unconventional Wisdom

This article was published two weeks ago on StartUp San Diego's blog. I figured you guys might enjoy so I'm reposting it here.

Sunshine and Navy SEALs. Craft beer and mobile chipsets. Biotech and retirement homes. Surfer mecca and research haven. San Diego is a city packed with contradiction. As it happens, these contrasts are also the region’s greatest strength.

“My favorite part about San Diego is that it challenges expectations,” says GroundMetrics Inc. CEO George Eiskamp. “We have a wide breadth of knowledge here. From experts in defense contracting to a world leading supercomputer center. Our team is doubling in size over the next three months and our location in San Diego has been an enormous asset. We have a large group of top local talent to draw on and hires from other locations never complain about the move.”

GroundMetrics Inc. is one of the fastest growing startups in the region. They have developed a new kind of electromagnetic sensor system that captures high fidelity geological data. They use these sensors to run surveys for oil and gas companies. It’s almost like an MRI for rocks.

Illustration of a GroundMetrics' survey.
“I’m a UC San Diego alumni,” says George. “We’ve hired multiple alumni from local universities. We’re working on integrating Scripps Institution of Oceanography code with our data processing software. The student-run Rady Venture Fund at UC San Diego invested in our Series A2 financing round. The San Diego chapter of the Tech Coast Angels are some of our most loyal investors.”

Many look to the San Francisco Bay Area as the gravitational center of the startup world. But technological and business innovations are emerging in many places you might not think to look. Boulder, CO has seen a flush of new tech startup success. Last week, Twitter acquired long-time Boulder social data startup Gnip.

San Diego is earning its reputation based on being a little different. GroundMetrics is now the world leader in ground-based electromagnetic sensors. Oberon Fuels is rethinking transportation with its clean-burning, low-cost dimethyl ether fuel. Kapyon Ventures is changing agricultural biotech and Correlation Ventures is doing venture capital differently.

“Like San Diego, our team prides ourselves on being unconventional,” says George. “We’ve uncovered great opportunities and developed incredible inventions by challenging conventional wisdom. Many of Malcolm Gladwell’s books challenge conventional wisdom. Data displaces assumption. So many experts have told us what we’re doing is impossible. Then their jaws drop when they see our technology in action.

“This approach shapes our hiring priorities,” he continues. “We look for outside-the-box thinkers who can’t help but over-achieve. We don’t restrict ourselves to hiring folks from the oil industry. We restrict ourselves to hiring folks who strive to define excellence in whatever they’re working on.”

Diversity is a key ingredient for innovation. As it happens, diversity is one of San Diego’s greatest assets. Home of companies from Qualcomm to Petco, the region has a cross-section of high performers that are now shaping the next generation of American companies. That is, as long as they continue to cultivate unconventional wisdom.