What I’ve Learned from Chris Sacca: Value, Empathy, and People

TL;DR: Life is all about relationships. A reflection on how Chris Sacca’s notions of value and relationships have shaped my views on business and people.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 7.31.46 PM

I was debating whether or not to write this a post under the Minimum Viable Network banner, but in the end it seemed that it was better as a stand-alone thought process. Frankly, I was going to save the whole reflection for another time, but sometimes when you have to write it out, nothing else suffices.

Creative Minds

No doubt that most of the tech and VC world is talking about Chris Sacca’s retirement from VC today. And while I won’t pretend I saw it coming, I also can’t say that I’m 100% surprised by it. Growing up, working, and socializing among artists and creative individuals, one thing I’ve come to accept as true is that truly innovative minds become restless and constantly seek new adventures and challenges.

In my time identifying as a writer, poet, journalist, painter, artist, founder, I’ve heard people who don’t quite understand the pull describe it as “lack of focus” or “a desire for obstacles over happiness.” But that cheapens the real feeling that we contend with; it’s not about lacking focus or not wanting to be happy. Just the opposite—it’s about finding happiness and meaning in new adventures and letting those new teachings sharpen our focus and perspective on life.

I’ve had the unique opportunity of speaking to Sacca just once, and in that short exchange, I saw in him what I’ve described above. And it made me want to get to know him even more.

There’s a myth popularized by artist biopics that truly creative people prize art/winning/results above all else, especially relationships with others. Sacca proves that to be dead wrong. In so many ways, the greatest creators and innovators were great because of the relationships they cultivated, most times with oft forgotten people in the background. Van Gogh had his brother Theo to support him and keep him (mostly) sane, Jim Morrison had his long-time companion  Pamela Courson, and in many ways Steve Jobs had Wozniak (certainly not forgotten) to keep him balanced for a time.

Relationships don’t distract from incredible achievements; they are what make those achievements possible.

Relationships Define People

So what does any of this have to do with Sacca? Everything.

My first thought reading Sacca’s retirement post wasn’t “oh no, but I wanted Lowercase to fund my next company,” or “but why walk away, you’re winning.”

It’s simply: “Money or no money, I still want to know Sacca because of the things he’s espoused over the last few years which have shaped my perspective in tech and business, as well as life.”

I’m more grateful to Erik Torenberg and Product Hunt than I could even say for facilitating the aforementioned encounter. In life, sometimes the most transformative experiences can come from the most serendipitous opportunities, and that was certainly true here. (A full reflection on this experience for the Minimum Viable Network is forthcoming when the time is right.)

So why has listening to Sacca and reading his posts been “so transformative?” Because his notion of creating value for others before asking for yourself, prizing empathy, and networking through conviction have become central tenets to how I think.

Core Tenets

In creating the idea of the Minimum Viable Network, so much is centered around the concept of creating value for others, cultivating deep relationships through empathy, acting as a support network when your friends and allies need you, and projecting magnetic positivity and opportunity. When I talk to artists, I tell them to go out and project a powerful, positive persona—that’s what attracts people. In helping a good friend of mine prepare for a lecture on ethics at Syracuse University (happening tonight!), I told him to emphasize empathy, and that power will come from a conviction for honest networking.

To other founders who now tweet me and ask how to get into tech and startups (why they tweet me is still a mystery haha), I say simply: Go and create ridiculous amounts of value for other people; don’t worry about “getting your’s” right now.

Karma comes around when the time is right. Focus on making yourself so magnetic to others that they can’t not know you.

I’m Richer for Seeing Life Through Relationships with People

I’m in so many ways richer for shaping my perspective on life around these core ideas. I’ve had the good fortune of building an incredible network of friends and allies, seemingly through just running my mouth and doing things for other people. The irony? It was never a “strategy” I was employing—creating value for others to create value for myself. It was—and is—simply doing things for others because I can, and because I want to. But like I said, karma has a funny way of keeping track.

So at the end of all of this, where am I?

Still positive, still excited, and still looking forward to my first coffee with Sacca, whenever that might be. In tech as in music, everyone seems to know everyone, and reputation is everything. So I have total faith that people who endeavor to help others will see their paths cross at some point. Until then, I’ll keep learning, keep building, keep creating value, and keep empathizing with others.

Life is relationships. And relationships happen at the most serendipitous of times.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Advertisements

Retaining Our Conviction for Gender Equality

Originally published on my Medium on January 28th, 2017. 

170121211838-28-womens-march-dc-super-169.jpg

Perspectives from the Son of Two Civil Rights Lawyers

Last Saturday, on January 21st, 2017, women (and men) in all 50 states, as well as 50+ countries around the world, marched for gender equality. Their marches were a protest of the new American President Donald Trump, and his misogynist, exclusionary dialogue (monologue?) regarding gender rights in the U.S.

The marches were a resounding success, drawing more than 3 million people worldwide, and painting my social media feeds—and those of everyone I know—pink with solidarity. And for a moment—a day—it seemed that scores of people saw what I see every day.

My parents are civil rights attorneys—they have a combined 70+ years worth of experience practicing sexual harassment and employment discrimination law, and are barred (i.e. licensed to practice law) in 3 states. They’ve litigated at most levels, from state court all the way up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on numerous occasions.

As a result, I grew up seeing the disgusting misogyny and sexism (not to mention racism, and most every other “-ism” you can think of) that so many people seemed intent on banishing last weekend. From the time I was in grade school, terms like “Title VII,” “Title IX,” and “EEOC” were words thrown around the dinner table as my parents discussed research for cases they were working on.

Now those words seem to be sinking into the consciousness of Americans on a much broader scale, and that in itself is a good thing. But it’s not the only thing, and we must not become complacent.

The reality is that as wonderful as marches are, they don’t achieve anything by their own virtue beyond creating awareness and emotion. How many people marched against the Vietnam War in the ‘70s? Millions. Did it force Nixon to pull out of Vietnam? No.

The power in marches and collective support is not in their ability to force legal changes—it is in their power to force lawmakers who otherwise would ignore the problems to pay attention and address those issues.

That is the understanding that we must have moving forward after last weekend. If we pat ourselves on the back, and simply drift back to where we were, then nothing changes; Trump is still President, the Congress is still hyper-Conservative, and women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBTQ rights are still in danger and under siege.

Change comes in conviction to speak out for others when there isn’t a big march to attend. It comes in the courage to hold people accountable for sexist policies and discriminatory laws, regardless of the size of the institution or the extent of their war-chest. The precedent for holding public policy-makers accountable is well-established:

  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 US 424 (1971) — Decided that certain education requirements and intelligence tests used as conditions of employment acted to exclude African-American job applicants, did not relate to job performance, and were prohibited.
  • McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 US 792 (1973) — Laid out a formula for a finding of discrimination where there is no admission.
  • Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 US 248 (1981) — Laid out that the plaintiff always bears the burden of proof, and sets a finding of context for allegations of discrimination.
  • Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986) — Found that a claim of “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that may be brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Ellerth/Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998) — Decided that employers need to have an anti-harassment policy which is communicated/distributed to all employees, which tells employees who they can complain to if they are being harassed. Once a complaint has been received, the employer has the obligation to address the harassment claim, and take action if the complaint is founded.

And these are only a few of the cases which have become a part of Title VII and Title IX jurisprudence.

Thus it falls to us, in the days, weeks, and months after these marches to keep our focus clear. All the pink hats in the world and all the pictures of people gathered to march will mean nothing if no policy is affected by it.

If there continues to be the same gender-based wage-gap, diversity disparity, and dismissal of sexual harassment claims and grievances, we will have achieved nothing of consequence beyond snapping some great pictures for our social media.

The amazing thing is that it appears to me as if we really do live in a new era. It’s not 2002 anymore—LGBTQ rights matter to people (outside the LGBTQ community) on a scale they arguably never have before. Focus on sexual harassment and discrimination seems to be ticking up as ability to document and share these grievances has grown. More women and minorities serve in all facets of our lives than we’ve ever experienced—from politics, to business, to law, medicine, athletics, and the arts.

Now, the next step after making people aware, and care about these issues, is to make sure than something gets done. We’ve had the high of seeing that millions of people care, and were willing to brave the rain and cold to have their voices heard. We’ve seen that those people don’t just live in New York City and San Francisco, but live all over the country (and the world!)—in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Anchorage, Miami, Chicago, Boise, Billings, Denver, and Philadelphia.

So with all of this in mind, let’s do something about it. Companies and universities should be actively seeking out attorneys with experience in discrimination and sex harassment law to coach their HR departments—to help them understand Title VII and Title IX, and set proper parameters for their employees based on these legal codes. More understanding and higher accountability means fewer cases, and fewer cases means less money that needs to be spent in litigation. And that’s not to mention the PR perks of high accountability and an egalitarian environment.

With all of the news this weekend regarding Trump’s new Muslim ban (that’s definitely coming up in another essay), it can be easy to forget the message which was loudly sent a week ago. But we need to keep pressure on the pulse of discrimination, and drive steadfastly towards gender equality if we’re ever going to fully achieve it. Egalitarianism and meritocracy are rights deserved by all, but it will take hard work to make it a reality.


Follow me on Twitter for thoughts on music, tech, business, and politics!

A Message for the Alt-Right This Holiday Season

Dear Atl-Right,

You’re riding high on the fumes of your supposed success, so you think you’ve won the fight.

You haven’t.

I’m still still here—we’re still here. The “others” you so very much detest and scapegoat for problems which have nothing to do with us. Change is hard and uncomfortable, so you don’t like it. You think it would just be easier—better—to keep things as they were. Except, ironically, you don’t seem to realize or care that you were on the periphery then, too. You’ve just found another “other” to turn your frustrations to.

You think that because my skin is black/brown/olive/caramel/tan/not-white that you can intimidate me. You can’t.

You think that because I go to synagogue/mosque/temple/non-church to pray that you will make me doubt myself. You won’t.

You think that because I’m an immigrant I don’t belong here. I do. And anyway, that’s pretty self-righteous talk for someone who lives in a country of immigrants and their descendants.

You think that because I am gay/lesbian/bi/female/trans/feminist/queer that I should just shut my mouth. I won’t.

You think because many of us have different opinions and political ideologies that we can’t and won’t work together against you. We can and we will. We intend to.

And most of all, you think that if I am any of the things above, I won’t be supported by others in my fight to push forward. I am, and we have all made the decision that you won’t win in the end. Singular victories are hollow if they’re not followed by lasting legacy, and they ultimately brittle and turn to dust.

Look at Ozymandias:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

You are him, proclaiming victory when time is coming to swallow you up. The empire you seek to build will soon be in dust, so don’t get too comfortable on that pedestal you’ve built for yourself.

All this time you’ve thought we could be scared away, content to meagerly limp out, tail between our legs.

You’re wrong. We’re not going anywhere.

Happy holidays.

Signed,

The “Others”

Empathy, and Creating Value for Others Before Yourself

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 7.31.46 PM

Speaking with Chris Sacca and Erik Torenberg on Product Hunt LIVE

Empathy and Humility Are Disarming

Earlier this weekend, there was a great Medium post on Chris Sacca, and how he asks questions in a particular way. Phrasing it as “people-hacking,” a term which I found as quirky as it was vague, the post described the Q&A session which Sacca held following his most recent appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, and which was moderated by Matt Mazzeo.

What I found most intriguing about the whole post was the ease with which it captured Sacca’s approach to not only answering questions, but asking them. The post itself seemed modeled on Sacca’s “ask vague, unloaded questions” approach, getting right to the heart of how and why someone in Sacca’s shoes (as a well-known investor) still seems approachable and down to earth. Humility is disarming and positivity is magnetic, whether you’re a founder, VC, employee, or customer.

Empathy—for other founders and everyone around you—seems to be a key trait which Sacca looks for. The focus on empathy falls directly in line with the thesis of Sacca’s earlier posts and Periscopes: karma, and creating value for others before asking for value for yourself. Last summer, I examined this focus on empathy and creating value for others within the greater context of relationships.

Creating Value for Others Before Yourself

I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Sacca on these concepts a few months ago during a Product Hunt LIVE discussion he did. During the course of our short back-and-forth, he mentioned as an example how Mazzeo appeared on his radar simply because he created value for what Sacca was doing.

It was this initial value-for-nothing that then coalesced into a working relationship between the two (sans any formal interview); an example that underscored (at last for me) how important it is to continue to be a positive force for others even if the benefit for yourself is not yet clear. Good karma begets more good karma.    

Asking intentionally open-ended questions like “What does success look like?” and “How do you envision success with this product?” (from the original post) enable Sacca to do two things:

  1. He is able to maneuver the conversation away from stock answers and see how the founders really relate to their products, and
  2. He allows an element of freedom to flow through the process which eases the pressure and arguably allows him to see how a founder thinks when not completely flustered.

Relationships → Communities → Identities

The real takeaway from both the Medium post and Sacca’s initial Periscopes and articles is a focus on, and underscoring of, people. Understanding how people think, and being able to relate to those thoughts and emotions are what build relationships, which then turn into communities, and then into identities. Great companies cannot be built without these things, no matter how well everything else might work. Life is relationships, and there’s no substitute for knowing how to relate to people in empathetic and positive ways. These emotions in turn inspire trust and loyalty.

As they continue to build great things, I would encourage other founders to take these things to heart. They ring true regardless of whichever industry or walk of life you come from.

Thanks to Chris Sacca for taking time to answer my question, and to Erik Torenberg from Product Hunt for making it possible to do so!

Musings on Memorial Day

Both of my grandfathers are veterans. My mom’s father served in Korea, and my dad’s father in WWII. Every Veterans’ and Memorial Day I think about that fact. And I think about the fact that I rarely hear any stories about it.

My dad’s father passed away before I was old enough to remember him—unfortunately what I know of him is concocted through stories from my dad, uncle, and their cousins. The one thing I do know—the one thing my dad says a lot—is that he never really talked much about the war after he got back. Sure he had a few entertaining stories, but he always stuck (I’m told) to a select few. I asked my dad one time about why he thought that was, and his answer was fairly poignant: “I think he saw more over there than he really wanted to remember. I think he had to try and put it to rest.”

My mom’s father—who I’ve been lucky to grow up with—served in Korea, and though he mentions his days in the army sometimes, it’s really not very often. He’s as proud of being a veteran as anyone, but I think the same holds true for him: I think he saw more in the conflict then he really wants to remember or talk about. He’s happy to stick to his stories of funny bunkmates and captains, because that’s where he’s comfortable.

These are the things I think about on days like this; the fact that though many have served (and are currently), what they see isn’t a movie like we experience at home on TV. They see and experience things that we hope never to experience—and which they never want us to. That’s the reason they make the sacrifices they do. So today I think about those sacrifices and appreciate them as much as I possibly can. Memorial Day is fun for pool parties, cookouts, American flags—but it’s also for remembering and honoring those who aren’t here to celebrate with us.