There’s Life After Failure

 

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Four Cofounders (from left): Myles, Michael, Shelley, and me

 

Two weeks ago I shut down my startup.

I called my team members, notified our users, and made the decision that it was time to bring Glipple to a close. Retrospectively, the writing was on the wall. Now is the part where you wait for me to share some zen philosophy that I could only learn through failure.

Don’t hold your breath.

Don’t Gloss Over the Emotional Toll

Yes, I did learn a lot and in the end I’m glad I had the experience. But I’m not about to write another diatribe of cutely composed “tips for closing your first startup” which you will inevitably skim through until you read the next such post-mortem blog post on Medium…probably in about 30 minutes. Because in startups, it’s become the epitome of chic and cliche to write a post-mortem blog post when(ever) your startup fails.

Ultimately, though, so many of them gloss over the emotional toll it takes on you, so I’m going to write exactly what I’ve really wanted to know every time I read through one of these posts. Frankly, I’ve only seen a few people actually brave enough to publicly tell it how it is. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading this post from Andy Sparks and this one from Poornima Vijayashanker.

I’m not really 100% sure why there’s such a fascination with failure in our business. Probably because people shape that perception of failure into a positive reflection thereafter and attempt to use it as a drive for the next idea. That’s not a bad strategy, objectively speaking. But I sometimes wonder if it creates a flippant attitude toward failure which unintentionally misunderstands human behavior.

All these post-mortem blog posts make the whole process seem relatively easy; ok we failed, but here’s our end-of-the-run coffee party, and we’re off to better things tomorrow.

That’s not where failure gets you—not in the immediate moment.

The 3AM Blog Post in the Dark

You wanna know where it gets you? Right here, sitting in the dark at 3AM, typing out your bitterness and frustration in a draft as quietly as you can because you girlfriend is sleeping in the next room and there’s no point in waking her up to share your misery. It’s not perpetual bitterness, but temporary bitterness bristles just the same. Failure leaves you temporarily raw, and if it doesn’t, you didn’t care enough in the first place.

Emotional pain is the normal reaction. There’s a part of you that now feels lost, and grieving is a major part of the process. That emotional toll is what makes startups different than hobbies.

It’s ok if—for a moment—I sound like one of “those” entrepreneurs who couldn’t hack it. I’ve got news for you: chances are you’ll experience this feeling too at some point—I’m just choosing to be very public about it. Because in the end I’m human, and to pretend that everything’s ok and that I’m impervious to extreme disappointment and disillusionment isn’t being strong and resilient—it’s being fake.

Tech’s “Failure” Failure

In Silicon Valley—and in tech at large—failure is a great thing. It means that you took a shot, that it didn’t work, and that you supposedly learned something very valuable to draw on for your next venture.

And hopefully these things are true, but the reverence with which we look at failure—with which we make it a club that people should want to be in or be happy to join—is pretty ridiculous. To construct a system where failing is revered—almost required—is remarkably jarring. There’s just something about it that doesn’t seem realistic or dialed in to human emotion. 

To Feel Like an Abject Failure

I believe in my heart that most if not all of the people who write the positive tweets that we read mean well. Usually they’ve been in similar situations and figured out ways to surmount challenges and failures and move on to greater successes.

But sometimes, that unbridled optimism and pragmatism—well-intentioned though it may be—comes off as disinterest and disconnect. As if one has somehow forgotten what abject failure feels like. True, it may not actually be abject failure, but it sure feels like it in the moment.

And the worst part? When you feel this level of failure, it pulls you into a place where you don’t want to speak to anyone—don’t want to admit to anyone—that your failure is real, and that your need for help is even more real. You’re even more determined to strike out again on your own and prove to yourself and everyone else that you are a “real” founder—a “real” entrepreneur—and that you can pick yourself back up by your bootstraps. Those of us who struggle with depression feel this even more acutely.

But this is a mistake.

When People Are Your Strength

In the lull during which my startup started to fade—and during which I knew in my heart there seemed little recourse to keep it from doing so—I began to pull away from people. This was a mistake, especially for me. I’m a people person, and I gain so much of my energy from talking to people and helping people. When I started to pull away, I began to lose a part of myself. Actually, I began to lose another part of myself, because I was already losing a part of myself in losing my startup.

Only through recognizing that the disappointment and disillusionment which follow failure are part of the entrepreneurial fabric can we begin to open ourselves up to other people and possibilities after failure. This is the danger in fetishizing failure and spectacular flameouts: it is devastating for those of us who draw our energy from other people. Bragging about failure in a proud way is something distinctly Silicon Valley and very much of startup tech DNA; outside that realm, doing this is simply not done in such a way, and certainly not done with such gusto.

It’s equally important to emphasize to founders that failure isn’t simply a milestone that they should mark on their startup belts as they would raising a fund or releasing their 2.0 product. Failure is debilitating and it is in these very fragile states that founders need the most support from each other. Everything is easy when it’s easy; but when things go to hell, you need to be open to grasping someone’s hand when they offer it.

When people are your strength, it’s important to remember that heading back to that harbor is precisely how you recharge your batteries after a defeat. If you’ve done anything right along your startup journey to that point, you will have formed at least a few solid connections with others in your network who you can speak with candidly. If you’ve done at least this right, all the rest will fade into background noise.

Coming Back from the Brink

And after all of this—all the nights spent in cold sweats with stomach pains worrying about money, looking yourself in the mirror wondering if you’re a failure (are you even that?), skating over the “so what do you do?” question at parties and family holidays—you find a way to crawl back. You’ve stood on the precipice of failure and looked into the depths—spat it in the face—and somehow stomped your way back onto solid ground.

The funny thing about the failure precipice? It doesn’t ever exist as starkly in reality as it does in your mind. You stepped out over the edge expecting to fall a thousand miles into darkness, only to find yourself ankle-deep in a deceptively dark pool of water. So in the end, crossing over to the other side—finding solid ground again—isn’t as hard as it seemed before. The haunting chasm was only miles-deep in your mind.

Taking the Leap Again

There’s life after failure. That’s what I’m learning. Slowly but surely I’m learning it.

Will I do a music-startup again? Probably. Will I do a number of things differently now that I’ve learned new things? Absolutely. Am I as scared of my next potential failure as I was of my first one? Not even in the same ballpark.

I started drafting this piece in my apartment, sitting in the dark at 3AM, alone with only my thoughts of failure because I thought that’s how it had to be. Or how it was going to be regardless.

But I’m finishing it now, sitting in a bustling Starbucks in downtown Atlanta, drinking a large coffee, listening to Eve 6, and emailing people, looking for my next leap. I have drafts open of the next few articles I’m writing, and my phone is buzzing every ten minutes with new possibilities.  

Startup life isn’t easy, and failure isn’t fun. But it’s also not the end. As Eve 6 put it:

The monster in the closet, when the light’s turned on/

Is just a jacket on a hanger and the fear is gone/

And the world keeps turning, sun keeps burning/

We are the lost and found, gonna make it through another day.

***

Thanks

I’m so grateful to my cofounders for taking this journey with me. I know we’ll have another one together some time. To all those in my support system who have listened and helped me through this dip, you know who you are, and I am more grateful than you know. You took so much time out of your busy schedules to support me, and that does not go unnoticed. You all are a huge part of the reason I can write this post with a determined smile on my face.

Lastly, to my girlfriend who has been my rock through this whole adventure, and to my parents who are always my biggest support network.

***

If you’re struggling with your startup journey, feel free to reach out and let’s talk.

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

 

Unrolling the Unroll.me Conundrum

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TL;DR: The Unroll.me scenario highlights the need for more discussion on legal and TOS

Blowup

A couple weeks ago, NYT journalist Mike Isaac wrote a piece on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that inadvertently gave legs to another story: Unroll.me. I’m not going to restate the facts of the backlash—you can go to multiple sources to read those. I will, however, point out something that I think was missing from the overall conversation, which I think is important for the tech community to assess as much as anything else about the story.

The exact implications of the backlash notwithstanding, it brings up two main points, both of which are connected, and one of which I’ve only seen any real discussion. In short, here’s why Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya’s apology doesn’t solve the underlying problem:

  1. It placed all of the culpability on the Unroll.me team, and
  2. It presented “lack of TOS transparency” as the main problem, while the bigger problem as I see it is a lack of discussion and knowledge of TOS in general.

The first was a misstep because it painted Unroll.me as the villain in the narrative. It’s true: Unroll.me could have been much more transparent about their TOS practices, as plenty of people have already pointed out. In particular, Hunter Walk and Steve Sinofsky presented valid points on this in our tweet conversation. As Hunter pointed out, the company’s suggestion that users simply “Read the TOS” was at best insufficient and at worst callous. Steve also tweeted that trying to write an explanatory text of a contract (TOS) in plain English may well not hold up the same legally. Both are correct. But I also see something deeper.

The Precarious Balance

However, the full, unequivocal admission of guilt left Unroll.me holding the whole bag, while only a portion of any perceivable guilt actually lay with them. The cold reality of the entire situation is that the Terms of Service are there for a reason, and that reason isn’t just to take up space or peeve users when downloading a new app. It’s to protect and indemnify the company against any possible legal action; to assert that the company is in the right, and that some responsibility has to rest with the user.

Is the company always right? No. Is it always clear of indiscretions? Of course not (just look at Uber). But the point is that the TOS exists for a reason. And contrary to what many users might want to believe, that reason is not to please them or give them warm feelings inside. It’s to make sure that the company is legally protected.

But what about transparency? Is that not equally important?

The answer, more and more, is “yes,” it is important. But it’s also important that users don’t conflate transparency—of TOS, for example—with a lack of responsibility on their part.

Legal knowledge shouldn’t be seen as a dark art, and—companies’ TOS should be sufficiently clear so users understand and accept the terms outlined therein. It needn’t be a good/bad scenario—just one where all parties are clearly informed. In the context, the legal concept of “good faith” applies almost without question.

The Real Point

All of this leads up to the real point which should be central to everyone’s perspective: that the tech press and blogosphere should cover legal matters, especially those related to TOS, far more than they already do. I read countless articles and posts, and listen to numerous podcasts on fundraising, user-acquisition and retention, hiring, firing, going public, etc. But for all of that, I see only a handful of posts or podcasts where legal knowledge is discussed with as much vigor and depth as new funding rounds are. Sure, those posts and podcasts exist, but they don’t get tweeted nearly as much in the tech mainstream as others on the aforementioned topics.

Why? Well, frankly, because legal stuff is perceived as boring. It’s not “move fast and break stuff”—it’s “move slowly, and make sure you read every word.” That’s not fun, but it is necessary. The larger lesson one should take away from the Unroll.me incident is that founders, VC’s, accelerators, and tech journalists should all turn around and discuss the Terms of Service as much as any other metrics. After all it’s the legal footing upon which the financial relationship between companies and customers ultimately rests. Well-done TOS should be emphasized just as much as raising a Series C round. After all, many companies won’t even get to Series C, but they for damn sure won’t get to Series A without a rock solid TOS.

Firsthand Experience

I learned this firsthand when I was starting my first company, a music-tech startup. What’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear “music company?” Getting sued. And I knew that.

So I read every TOS and license I could relating to music—I read Spotify’s, Apple’s, YouTube’s, SoundCloud’s, and even Rdio’s before they went under. I read every single word, and took notes on where each license and TOS assumed too much responsibility—some of which was unrealistic. And then I made sure that our own license and Terms of Service didn’t invite unwanted legal exposure—I wrote it that way. I knew everything in our TOS, and could run it over, forwards and backwards, in my sleep, to artists, founders, VC’s, or anyone else who asked.    

Of course not every person is equipped for feels prepared to write their own TOS. I did, but then again, I can’t code, so we all have our strengths and weaknesses. However, because I spent so much time researching, reading, and refining our license and TOS, I was intimately familiar with everything it said. You don’t need to be a lawyer to prioritize knowing your TOS. This is a massive advantage.

You Should Know Your TOS Forward and Backward, Inside and Out

Knowing what your company does and doesn’t do—what you’re allowed to do as written in your TOS—is an advantage because it’s something you can then share with your users. This gives you power. When you are well-versed in the legal aspects of your company as well as the financial or technical ones, you are able to paint a full picture for your customers and control the narrative that is told. It’s not about being deceptive—I would never advocate for that.

But people feel a whole lot less deceived when they’re able to have a real conversation about what they’re signing. Fear and doubt tend to dissipate when questions are welcomed, and people feel respected as customers and users.

This is what the takeaway should be, and where we focus future discussions. Yes, Unroll.me made some mistakes, and companies should try to learn from them and be open and honest with their TOS and other licensing agreements before anything questionable comes out. But we as an industry should similarly prioritize legal knowledge and versatility the way we do engineering prowess and marketing brilliance. In the end, it’s all required to make and run an amazing company.

***

Thanks to Jason Rowley, Nick Abouzeid, Alex Marshall, and Eric Willis for reading drafts of this.

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

How a Blog Post Led to Relationship Building with Lowercase Capital

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your networking is simply to express interest in the things which interest you. Mere blog posts or tweets can lead to amazing opportunities. Part of networking is setting yourself up for mutually beneficial outcomes with others. Let me elaborate.

A Chance Message

Just over a year ago, in March 2016, I wrote an article on AngelList Radio’s podcast episode with Jason Calacanis and Tyler Willis. I got some great feedback on it, and Jason even tweeted it! But that was only the tip of the opportunity iceberg.

About four hours after I’d posted the original piece, I received a DM from Eric Willis, one of the top hunters on Product Hunt. He articulated that he really liked the breakdown I put together, and had an interesting opportunity to share with me. And just like that, I was introduced to a variety of amazing people working with Lowercase Capital.

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At the time, I had a very limited network in L.A., so connecting with Eric was incredible because of his wide range of relationships and positive reputation. Of course I accepted immediately, even as I was juggling, my own company, writing on the side, and planning to leave for Israel in a couple months.

Rule #1 when building your Minimum Viable Network: Never say “no” to opportunities which will put you in contact with incredible people.

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Just as the point of any initial meeting with an investor is to get a second meeting, the point of any serendipitous connection is to see where the relationship can take you. Good returns will follow.

The Experience: Working with Lowercase Capital

It turned out that accepting the offer to work on this new project opened wide doors. I had the incredible opportunity to speak with and learn from Matt Mazzeo on numerous occasions. I was able to again work with close allies like Kiki Schirr, whom I’d known for some time. Lastly, I met a whole host of new people who have become integral parts of my learning (through Twitter and posts) and support network. Including, Eric, Matt, and Kiki, I was introduced to Laz Alberto, Jackson Dahl, Stefan Stokic, Soroush GhodsiBrandon MayU, Patrick Hodgdon, and Ross Simmonds.

That particular project has concluded now, but the relationships have not. They’ve continued to grow over the last year, and have led to new opportunities in the interim. Retrospectively, I’m grateful for two things: 1) for Eric’s initial message and enthusiasm, and 2) that I had enough common sense to say “yes” and not let the opportunity slip by.

All this matters because it could happen to anyone; it’s all about putting yourself out there. But it’s about something else too. During our initial phone conversation regarding the project, Eric articulated that part of the reason he was interested in connecting me with the opportunity was because of my writing and editing skills, and what they could possibly bring to the venture. At the time, I was writing posts wondering if anybody at all besides my small network was reading them. It turned out that other people were.

The Takeaway: Mutually Beneficial Outcomes

The lesson here is this: project yourself as if people are always watching. That doesn’t mean don’t be quirky or don’t have fun—it means don’t be fake. Be real, win where you win, and project a magnetic quality which will draw in others.

Many times, it’s common to have the perception that if you don’t see someone following you on Twitter or tagging you in blog posts, then they must not know who you are. This is an incorrect and potentially disastrous assumption. It closes off potential opportunities for relationship-building and possibly even monetary compensation. So while the vanity metrics of how follower-count and who’s on your follower list are great for feeling good, they are just that: vanity metrics. You never know who’s lurking in the rafters, watching what you create, observing how you speak, forming their own opinions of who you are.

Networking—especially minimum viable networking—is a function of cultivating an approachable persona where people want to reach out to you because they sense confidence, competence, humility, vision, and potential. Creating such a persona encourages others—even subconsciously—to hook their stars to your own, because a rising tide lifts all ships. Whether the tide ends up being yours or theirs is almost inconsequential at a certain point, because both parties can reap the benefits of it. Creating circumstances for mutually beneficial outcomes is one of the main keys to becoming a master networker. People are naturally attracted to mutually beneficial outcomes precisely because they seem like no-lose situations.

Drawing Power from Possibilities

This was one for me.

I loved to write, and wasn’t going to stop. Working with Eric, Matt, and Lowercase could only enhance the mutual benefits. I would meet and learn from new and talented people. I would prove my skills to a new network. I would gain valuable experience in sharpening my writing for a specific project. And at the end of it all, I would walk away with more contacts than I’d started with. There was no downside.

Endeavor to view all potential networking opportunities like this. Some will work out and some won’t. But even those which don’t result in monetary compensation, or a huge hit product, will do much to sharpen others’ perception of you. And that gives you power. It gives you a chance which you otherwise might not have.

Follow your gut and say “yes” to new opportunities when they feel right.   

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

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Unbundled, Part III: Democratizing the Future

Why democratization and identity are the future of music.

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This is the final entry in the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


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Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization

Which brings us back to the last step in the cycle: unbundled once again. Only this time, the unbundled dynamic refers to power and ownership. The new unbundled form of power—referenced above—removes the focus of power from the major labels and fractures it, splintering it to varying degrees among the plethora of new artists and startups now emerging.

This is the best thing that could happen because it leads to a more stabilized version of meritocracy in music. The top-heavy, unbalanced paradigm of major label control over everything that a fan is exposed to is ending, and being replaced with a much murkier—but more expansive—reality. This in turn affects scarcity and gatekeeping on a massive level.

Scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

Ownership

Perhaps the most prickly point here is the concept of ownership in the new age. This is a contentious topic even among friends, and no one really knows what the landscape is going to look like in the next few years. What can be surmised, however, is that concepts of ownership of musical material are evolving. Sampling and other trends in electronic and DJ music, along with self-recording and independent releases, have muddied the waters of who owns what and to what extent.

Now the action of covering or remixing someone else’s song and posting it online bristles feathers. But (most) artists who do this also attribute the proper credits to the original artist(s)—many times in the cover or remix’s title—simply because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps them to disseminate their new version.

Asserting that cover songs and remixes hurt the original artist is a cloudy and jaded argument at best.

Yet, the argument can be made that with this new overhaul in ownership orthodoxy, perhaps the right people are now able to own the things they should have been able to all along. Let us not forget the reality of master tapes (where a record label owns the rights to an artist’s original recordings) which so many artists have regretted. Controlling one’s own material, and deciding what to do with it, are the ultimate power plays an artist can make. Appealing to this new sense of power is the best avenue for emerging music startups to make.

Such a concept is fairly reminiscent of a point Daniel Mark Harrison makes in a piece regarding bitcoin, wherein he illustrated that controlling access to material is the ultimate power: “…any major purchaser goes direct to a Bitcoin ‘miner’…and negotiates steep discounts for their volume purchase action.”

In this scenario, the music fan is the purchaser, the artist is the bitcoin miner, and the service that serves as a conduit between the two is better off appealing to and providing value to the artist rather than only the fan. Both are important, but the latter controls the material which the former wants to consume.

Money and Community

One of the loudest major factors that floats around is the argument over money, from streaming, downloading, merch sales, ticket sales, etc. Let’s be clear though: streaming and downloading—the purchase of musical material—is not where the real money is for artists. It never has been. The money has always been in the merchandise and live ticket sales. What does this mean nowadays? Community.

While it is certainly arguable and many times probable that new unbundling dynamics have struck at artists’ ability to make money from the sale of their music, it is equally arguable that it has enabled them to make money from other, more lucrative, avenues.

An artist can only sell a $10 album so many times (unless you’re a major label darling). Their real bread and butter is in their community cultivation: growing their base, getting people to come out, getting people to spread their music and message, and capitalizing on those efforts. Streaming and downloading revenue is at best a holdover until a better stream is tapped.

The dynamics that exist now in this new unbundled world provide new opportunities for artists. Now, they don’t need to make their money off music sales or streams. Enough access to fans and communication/funding tools exist that they can actually give their music away for free and turn a profit somewhere else.

And this is exactly what a growing number of artists are choosing to do.

The dissemination of their material onto a global stage is much more important than a few album sales here or there, and leads to better things on the other side. A more expansive universe brings more shows, more exposure, more true fans, and more branding opportunities. These are the real things that grant artists staying power.

The Expansive Powers of Identity

Lastly, there is identity. I examined in a previous piece how we’re seeing the rise of “identity platforms” in media. Music is no exception to this. In fact, it might be the shining example of it.

Identity gives music—and by extension all art—certain powers that contribute staying power. Identity is so powerful precisely because it exists independently of genre, mainstream recognition, money, or history; it’s unique in it’s own ability to build bridges where previously there were none. Regarding music, identity brings together people on a core level that can almost supersede differences they might otherwise have.

The power identity—especially in relation to art and music—in its potential to create ever-expanding identities—to create communities. Money is certainly a factor in this, but if a shared identity which draws people towards one another, and can shield them—for better or worse—from outside forces seeking to compromise that unique, collective identity. As music is given the ability to disseminate more and more, more communities will arise around newly-minted identities, and art as a whole will become more lush and layered.

In the wake of these trends in art, music, and media, the power will lay with companies and platforms to not only cultivate these newly emerging identities, but to provide fertile ground for even more embryonic ones. Music becomes a vessel for the expansion of art and identity.

The Upswing

Where does this leave us? In unchartered territory to start with. Artists will continue to grow their power as new technologies make the opportunities possible. The companies which see this trend and capitalize on it will be the ones to stick around and do well. The others, however, who are resistant to this new set of events, will find it challenging to court artists and acquire material if they are determined to hold fast to a paradigm that was beneficial mostly to the major record labels.

Independents artists, and consumers of all strata (not merely the mainstream), will not be ignored or marginalized anymore. They will continue to experiment with the bundling/unbundling process until they find the right fit for themselves, and for their careers. There will be less of a set standard that all need to conform to, and more of a flexible set of possibilities and avenues for people to mix and match to reflect their changing personal experiences.

The future of music is three things: freedom, community, and democratization.

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

How to Get That Coffee Meeting You Can’t Get

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Reflecting on “Creating Value” and Reaching Out to Others

A couple weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Poornima Vijayashanker of Femgineer. We spoke about startup failure, resilience, new opportunities, and networking. During the course of our conversation, we discussed the notion of reaching out to others—particularly the idea of reaching out to influential people in one’s network “without a reason.” It occurred to me recently that there is a massive difference between reaching out to someone in a tactless way and building a bridge with someone to facilitate dialogue and potential partnership in the future. Let me explain.

Poornima and I both expressed to be fans of the mantra “create value for others before asking for it for yourself”—a notion that I was opened up to and drawn to through following Chris Sacca and others. Part of what the mantra espouses is the belief that doing things for other people leads to people wanting to do good things for you in return. It underscores the idea of good karma and proving one’s worth rather than just saying it. Sometimes, actions do truly speak louder than words.

But it also presented a challenge the more I thought about it. In my mind, part of creating value for others is recognizing the importance of their time, and treating it, as Mark Cuban would say, as their most precious resource. That understood, what if you want to get to know someone simply for the opportunity to get to know them? What if you don’t (yet) have a company or idea you want to pitch, or a fund round you want them to lead, or even an intro you want them to make for you? What if it really is as simple as identifying someone whose personality has an impact on you and wanting to cultivate a relationship with that person?

In short, how do you build your Minimum Viable Network without alienating the very people you hope to forge connections with?

“Don’t Ask to Pick My Brain Over a Coffee Meeting”

Investors always say “don’t ask me if we can meet for coffee so you can pick my brain.” I’ve heard it numerous times from influential investors who I respect. However, it didn’t match up with the private interactions I’ve had with a few influential investors myself (who shall remain unnamed to protect their inboxes). So, how do I have multiple standing offers to meet with some important people just to grab a coffee and chat—talk music—talk politics—talk relationships?

I put in time to get to know them beforehand. Before any coffee meeting was ever discussed.

I believe that when influential people say, “don’t ask me to meet for coffee or to pick my brain,” they’re not really saying “I’ll never have coffee with you.” (Though, as with all generalizations, there are always exceptions).

What they’re really saying is, “I won’t meet with you if I don’t know you.”

You Build a Minimum Viable Network Through People Knowing You

So what does “knowing me” mean?

Sometimes it means that someone in their network has recommended and vouched for you.

Other times, though, it means that they know we might share similar musical taste, a similar sense of humor, similar worldviews, and/or similar values. They’re articulating a desire to meet with people who’ve put in the time and effort to cultivate a relationship prior to the coffee meeting; time speaking on Twitter, helpful feedback on projects, and certainly time cultivating good reputation amongst the other people in their network.

This is how you get that coffee meeting that it appears no one ever gets. Be real, be engaging. If you share a similar musical or movie taste with someone you want a relationship with, let them knows. Post funny gifs, make references, lurk in conversations and make great observations—show that you have things in common on a human level outside the work paradigm.

This is how great networkers build great relationships.

Then, when you do have a specific idea you want to pursue, fund, or are seeking feedback on, reaching out to these people will be so much easier because a rapport has already been established. Not every good relationship needs to begin with a double-opt-in intro (though this is certainly one of the best techniques). It is possible to build great relationships on the backs of numerous coffee meetings where you just shoot the breeze with a sought after investor—but these will take much more time and care.

Be prepared to be patient, and always reciprocate good karma with good karma. Be humble in valuing someone else’s time, and it will speak louder than any idea you try to pitch in the moment.   

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

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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.

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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.

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

How Changing Your Perception of Cold Emailing Will Make You a Better Networker

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Cold Emailing Is a Necessary Skill

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece on why you should think of cold emailing as an opportunity, not a chore. The post was a response to a piece Hunter Walk had written on the topic, and it got me thinking about how we perceive the practice of cold emailing. So instead of discussing today how you should go about cold emailing, I think it’s first important to take a step back and discuss how you should go about thinking about cold emailing.

I’ve sent thousands of cold emails—to investors, to artists, to other founders—and what I’ve found is that it doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in. In the end, the lesson is always the same.  

In every industry, cold emailing is a fact of life to some extent. Whether you’re in tech, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement, law, real estate, etc., you will send some type of cold email at some point for some aspect of your job. Normally the goal of a cold email is to make a sale; to get some potential client to purchase something. But even in professions where your end goal isn’t to sell a product or service, you will undoubtedly need to reach out to someone you don’t initially know at some point.

Why Your Perception of Cold Emailing Matters

The reason that changing your perception about cold emailing can and will make you a better networker is because it changes how you perceive and meet obstacles. Look at cold emailing as another arrow in your networking quiver, and especially as one of the ones you may need to rely on to start building your minimum viable network. Though warm, double-opt in introductions are obviously preferred, cold emailing/messaging is still be an invaluable skill.

Not knowing someone—not having a prior meeting with them and/or not having someone to make an introduction for you—is a major obstacle in life. It will keep you from making that important sale which could sink or save your company. Sometimes the only way to reach that person is to take a stab and take your chances with an unintroduced email.

Instead of fixating on the fact that it’s a cold email and you have no history with the person, however, focus on how you can state creating a rapport with them. Do not think about it as you giving them a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have—rarely do cold emails with phrases like “I don’t want you to miss out” or “you’ll kick yourself if you don’t buy/invest” work. Those are just annoying, and reek of desperation.

Be Positive and Opportunistic, Not Desperate

Your goal in any cold email is not to project desperation, it’s to project opportunity. It’s about letting the other person know that you’re genuinely interested in creating a rapport with them, and possibly starting a longer-term relationship. At the end of the day, the cold emails which emphasize a long-term relationship tone over a short-term sale win almost every time. They are opportunistic and serendipitous—this in turn is magnetic to the reader.

Change how you think about cold emailing and you will change the responses you get to cold emails. This in turn will help you build out a network that perceives you as positive and magnetic. That—maybe more than anything—is what will draw people to your network.

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

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How to Build Your Network by Creating Value and Good Karma

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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A couple years ago (before AngelList acquired Product Hunt), AngelList founder and CEO Naval Ravikant did an AMA on Product Hunt during which a founder (Brent Summers) asked a fairly astute question: “If you were just starting out again, what are 1-2 steps you’d take to surround yourself with successful people?”

Naval’s answer?

Share freely.

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In so many words, Naval had underscored what I believed in work as well as in life: that introductions and great networking are a function of good vibes and positive karma. “Paying it forward” as Naval articulated.

Confidence and Good Karma Beget a Good Reputation

Everything good that’s happened in my professional career has come my way as a result of being open and sharing what I knew with others. Most every paid writing job I’ve had came my way because I published freely and shared ideas with people who were then in a position to throw some work my way. When I got into tech, opening myself up helped cultivate a paradigm in which new and exciting opportunities came my way, sometimes serendipitously. 

This is arguably one of the easiest things to learn and implement in your strategy as you build out your minimum viable network. When you know some something—when something is your wheelhouse and you can provide great feedback or ideas on something or to someone—do it, and don’t get caught up in the “what/when will you pay me?” question in the beginning. The good opportunities will follow, and compensation—monetary and otherwise—will materialize when the relationships have had time to germinate.

I’m not advocating for always doing work for free or selling yourself short. But this series isn’t about the hard realities of making money; it’s about how to put yourself in a position to cultivate long-term relationships that yield a broad, engaged network over time.

To Naval’s point, if you figure out something you’re really good at—something you know will benefit other people—then prove you’re the person they need to come to for that. How do you prove it? By showing people you’re confident and comfortable enough in your abilities that you’re happy to simply pay it forward.  Project this confidence, and you will become infinitely more attractive as a prospective network connection. You create your minimum viable network one relationship at a time, by building your reputation as always being around, and always being the right person for “that thing.”

Transactional Relationships Are Short-Term Relationships

This is a solid example of what Chris Sacca calls creating value for others before asking for it for yourself. By going out and doing things for other people—in this case, sharing what you know—without being transactional, you begin to make yourself indispensable, and therefore attractive as a candidate for someone’s network.

Transactional relationships make for short relationships—they are expendable as soon as they outgrow their utility. Symbiotic relationships, however, continue to grow and evolve as the people do, and this is born out of an ease of interactions—free exchange of ideas perhaps—between the individuals.

Plant the Seeds of Value

The best example I can give at the moment is this series: I know that I’m good with people. I like people; I like talking to them and building bridges between them.

So this is an exercise in how to help others do it. You want to start to gain influential followers on Twitter? Share things you know and freely reference other people in your blog posts and podcasts—and always credit them, because that’s a wonderful back-street way of building credit for yourself. Highlighting others’ value highlights your own value.

When that value seed is planted, it continues to grow—one connection, one lukewarm intro at a time—until you look back and realize you now have a minimum viable network that can allow you access to almost anything.

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

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Take Breaks—Burnout Kills Networking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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As I’ve been writing this series, I’ve been reflecting on some of the most difficult things about networking, and one thing that always pops into my head is the reality that taking breaks is so important. We don’t really think about networking as something you should take a break from; after all, why would you ever stop networking? Ever stop hustling? How can you possibly build your minimum viable network if you’re not always grinding away?

The answer is because burnout is so incredibly detrimental, and burnout can occur so easily when you’re putting so much energy into meeting new people. Relationships take effort to properly maintain, and it’s easy to lose sight of the focus they take to build. Taking time to give your mind a rest and reenergize will do wonders beyond what you think. By giving your mind a rest and time to recharge itself, you end up sharpening it, and let new ideas sink in which you might then use for your networking thereafter.

It’s always worth noting that the reverse is similarly true: trying to talk to people when your head isn’t in it will tell the other party that you either 1) don’t take proper care of yourself, or 2) that the discussion and/or face-time really isn’t all that important to you. Even if neither of these things is true, the result is the same: you make exactly the impression you don’t want to make. Instead of coming across as gregarious and magnetic, you will not be persuasive, engaging, or opportunistic, negating the entire point of the networking.

Understand that taking a day off to not be on social media or be a face in the community is good. People will chalk up your absence to the normal things (work, family, health, etc.), and when you come back, you’ll project a more energized and engaging persona. It’s easy to get caught up in the fast-paced milieu of networking, but don’t drive so hard that you burn yourself out.

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

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How to Piggyback Without Stealing Credit

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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In a previous post, I discussed how lurking can be a beneficial strategy to building a network because it enables you to absorb aspects of a topic of conversation before needing to jump in. Part of strategically lurking, though, is not only learning from others’ ideas, but using them to take the next step in the discussion.

There’s a precise way to do this, however. You don’t want to come across as someone who steals ideas or thunder from others; that will not endear you to the very people you want to be in your network. Constructing a minimum viable network means understanding how to use someone else’s ideas as a jumping-off point for your own without coming across as conniving or self-centered.

Understanding the Balance

Rule number one in this whole scenario is giving credit where credit is due. If you’re using someone else’s idea as a jumping-off point, then make that clear to everyone else. No one will think poorly of you for giving credit where it’s due, but you will absolutely self-sabotage if you look like someone who needs to control a whole conversation in order to get your point across. Worse, you don’t want to steal someone else’s insightful point and misrepresent it as your own.

In my experience, the answer is balance. Take all the time you want to lurk in a conversation, absorb new material and ideas, craft a point, and deploy it when the time is right. I’ve been in a conversation threads many times where I’ve seized on the specific point made by a VC or other founder, but taken time to craft a response. The feedback is almost always positive because a thoughtful response beats a quick response any day. The opposite side of the balance therein is making sure that credit for your thought or response goes to the right person; if someone’s initial message or point gave you a new idea or perspective, acknowledge that and run with it.

By taking time to examine conversations closely and add nuance, you do two things simultaneously:

  1. You validate the other person by virtue to referencing their point; you essentially show others that that person’s point is worth considering, and
  2. You show others in the conversation that you can be patient, sit and absorb information, learn new concepts, synthesize context, and use all of that to develop your own original points to share

Validate Someone Else, Validate Yourself

Show people that you can be patient and thoughtful. In the end, this will do the most for you because it’s a human calculation. When you validate someone’s point, you validate their experience and knowledge, and that has an endearing effect on people. People like to associate with others who are patient, who give credit where it’s due, and who can build on previous concepts to create new ones.

The goal is not to come across as the number one expert in that industry; the goal is to show people that you can sit back, be patient, learn from others, and use that to contribute meaningfully to a group dynamic. Done correctly, this tactic can open you up to numerous new conversations and fields, and has the potential to tell the successful people in those fields that you’re someone they should keep an eye on.

Anyone can go read a book and spit back information that someone else has already written. But it takes real skill to be able to synthesize knowledge from others and use it to take the next step while simultaneously crediting the appropriate sources. That is that skill that will tell an investor or other founder that you’re someone whom they should get to know and take seriously. This is how you will build your minimum viable network in all areas, even ones that are new to you.

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

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