Oculus and Storytelling

There is a myth surrounding one of the Lumière brothers’ first films in 1896 of a train arriving into a station. The astonished audience, not accustomed to watching a moving picture, ran to the back of the room in terror at the oncoming train.

Whether or not this tale is true, it highlights the profound way in which a new art form can interact with the primordial human psyche. Rarely do we see radically new formats emerge, but we recognize them when we see them. As one of the earliest users of the Oculus DK1, it was apparent when I first put on my Rift that I was quite literally looking at the future. Storytelling in virtual reality is still in its infancy, but it represents an exciting new medium of artistic expression. It is a revolutionary departure from the moving pictures of today.

While these developments will naturally take time, the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook is exciting news for VR storytellers. It is a historic day, and I’m proud to be a part of the incredible Oculus team. I look forward to playing a part in realizing this next great sea change in storytelling.

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A Lesson

This week, we are releasing the final cut of Divided Families to the wild via a preview screening at New York’s Korea Society.

This has been an incredible multi-year journey for the 115 people who have worked directly on this project, the dozens of divided families we interviewed and the hundreds who have contributed to our fundraisers and Kickstarter. This moment could not be more timely. North Korea is increasingly in the global psyche, whether in the form of perennial nuclear threats or bizarre rants from faded athletes.

Life moves quickly along, and certain markers give one the chance to reflect on lessons learned over the years. Here is one related to Divided Families.

I once heard the founder of a multi-billion dollar startup say that in colleagues, character matters more than intelligence or any other factor. This made sense at the time, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until working with people as fundamentally good as the folks at Divided Families. While I have found that money is often not the primary motivator for some of the best people, at least at a startup, one has equity and its promises to help convince someone it may be worthwhile investing their talents. But given the spotty financial performance of most independent films, financial incentives are rarely a large part of the recruiting equation.

In that light, the high level of talent and integrity in the Divided Families team is remarkable. The shared vision to help Korean divided families who have been separated for over half a century has fueled our drive for years. While there have been many bumps (and learning lessons) along the way, I’m proud to have contributed my part to bring this film into reality.

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Yesterday was an unexpectedly happy day.

Yes, some words were said. Some people wrote things.

But the sun shone, and it was a beautiful day to sit in the park, reflect, and contemplate the light shining through leaves. I saw friends. I ate. I laughed.

Certain events can serve as filters. Above all, the clear lesson yesterday was that the people who care about you will be there for you, no matter what others may think or write. Don’t get me wrong–many things this week sucked. But it is incredibly joyous to feel so much love, and it overshadows everything else. All the small, little thoughts of combatting a sea of troubles or correcting the inaccuracies of the press fall by the wayside.

Many high-performing individuals (shall I call them “type A”?) grow up with the notion that their accomplishments will bring love: making money, getting a promotion, winning a high school superlative. But these have nothing to do with the way the people who matter in your life feel about you. And while that’s a basic fact that everyone knows intellectually, it’s not something you feel every day emotionally.

It’s a nice feeling.

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Universities Should Be Investors, Students Should Be Startups

This piece was published in The Wall Street Journal.

In my adolescent years, my single mother started two businesses and worked a third wage job in order to raise my younger brother and me. Eventually, I started working in these businesses—one of them was a restaurant—to help my family through difficult times. Every weekend, I would wake up well before dawn to open the restaurant and work 12-hour days among the grease and fumes. Many years later, I would go on to Harvard Business School, where I learned about things like the 4Ps and 5Cs, before joining a venture capital firm, where I got used to sizing up markets and entrepreneurs in my sleep. I learned quite a lot about businesses and startups in these institutions (unlike many people in tech, I’m a true believer in the value of an M.B.A.), but I can say that I learned a lot more about entrepreneurship when the stakes were my family’s ability to put food on the table rather than getting a good grade.

There is a reason why “entrepreneur” etymologically comes from antique French words that mean “to undertake.” When it comes to subjects such as entrepreneurship, people learn much more by doing, rather than from lessons in a classroom, and the idea of it becoming an undergraduate major is a funny prospect. In the last half decade, the world has teetered back and forth from financial ruin, and in these turbulent times, central bankers, heads of states, hedge fund managers and pundits alike talk ceaselessly about navigating “the new normal.” Increasingly they’re pinning their hopes of global economic recovery on real innovation driven by entrepreneurs—after all, venture-backed companies account for 20% of US GDP. I’m of the belief that teaching our youth to become entrepreneurs is essential, as entrepreneurship is one of the keys to our economic future. However, a formalized undergraduate major would be a silly way to foster the startup spirit.

In one of my computer science courses in college, I was struck by a quote from a celebrated computer scientist who was asked whether he would like his children to study something as pedestrian as computer science at a university. His response was “no” because he wanted them to get a “real” education first in something like physics or mathematics. In an era where computer science sits near the top of the intellectually egotistical undergraduate food chain, this sentiment seems vaguely quaint, but there’s something to this feeling as a whole. What, I wonder, would this person say about his children majoring in something as “lowly” as entrepreneurship?

Some observers praise the German model of education, with its panoply of trade schools and universities that allow people to train rigorously in their chosen fields from a relatively early age. Similarly, we should teach aspiring entrepreneurs by letting them do. Some argue that students have much to gain by going through the formative years of college, but I say if they’re intent on higher education, then let them study subjects such as theoretical physics or mathematics or history, which are better suited to these settings. Don’t waste their four years studying something that is better taught outside of a university.

In fact, there is already a better model that exists for teaching entrepreneurs — by allowing them to start their own businesses. In this sense, universities have a lot they could learn from entrepreneurs, rather than vice versa. There is endless debate on the bubble in higher education—the notorious Thiel Fellowship delights some and rankles others. But this debate is not peculiar to our era. Even the seminal libertarian Milton Friedman, writing in the 1950s, argued that one possible solution to the problem of stale competition among universities was this: instead of universities taking tuition, the government would partially subsidize and allow each university to take an equity stake in the human capital of the individual, thereby motivating the university to produce graduates with high earning potential. In essence, each student would become a startup.

While Friedman’s ideas are difficult to implement for many reasons (imagine what would happen if we let Wall Street trade derivatives on our children?), his ideas are essentially being enacted today as youth of various stripes decide to sell equity stakes in their ideas as they try to build their businesses, raising money from venture capital or the relatively new asset class of startup accelerators.

Ultimately, I believe that creating a formalized undergraduate major in entrepreneurship is a step in the wrong direction. I have nothing against higher education—some of my best memories, best friends and lasting lessons have come from my years in college and grad school. There is nothing wrong with people who want or need to develop and grow through their years sheltered in these institutions. But for those intrepid enough to know they’re entrepreneurs from an early age, allow them to learn from the best teacher of entrepreneurship that we have: real life.

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TechStars NYC 2013

Today, we’re thrilled to announce our Spring 2013 TechStars class for New York City. Our applicant pool of nearly 1,700 companies was an all-time high for NYC. We had applicants from 420 cities, 66 countries, and 6 continents (no applicants from Antarctica—this year). The acceptance rate for our program (0.6% this time) grows ever smaller by the year.

We had applicants from countries as diverse as Nepal and Tanzania. More than ever, our applicant pool reflects the global reach of TechStars and the infusion of technology in the cultural zeitgeist of societies around the world. The movie The Social Network has become the Wall Street of our generation. This is true not just for America but for the world at large. Some of the brightest minds of our era are choosing to become entrepreneurs.

Even more impressive than the geographic diversity of our applicant pool was the outstanding range of business ideas, and this is reflected in the diversity of our class. The unifying theme is the fantastic quality of our founders and the interesting (and large) market opportunities they are tackling. We are not afraid to take chances. For the first time ever, we have a company tackling the religion space, an underserved yet massive market with incredible opportunities for disruption. Two of the things that Americans care most about are what they drive and what they eat, and we have companies revolutionizing both. The areas our founders are tackling are as varied as optimizing ecommerce to the world of pets. Our companies dream big, tackling the exciting new trends in cutting edge 3D to new ways of experiencing live shows to the quantifying of innovation for every company in the world. And the markets are large, with our founders bringing solutions to the millions of new parents in the US every year to providing pioneering solutions for the $40 billion online advertising market as well as the $1.2 trillion local commerce market.

  • AdYapper: Transparency and analytics to cut wasted ad spend.
  • Dash: Connected car platform.
  • FaithStreet: Social outreach platform for faith communities.
  • Jukely: 2-tap concert concierge.
  • Klooff: Uniting pet lovers around the world.
  • Placemeter: Smart in-store sensors capturing customer data.
  • Plated: Redefining the way we eat.
  • Sketchfab: Publish, share and embed interactive 3D models.
  • TriggerMail: Intelligent ecommerce emails.
  • Validation Board: Quantifying innovation and testing ideas for enterprises.
  • weeSpring: Community for new parents built around the people they trust most.

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Being Alive

He could not deal with people talking about him. It’s taken me some time since he died to get used to talking about him because I was under such strict instructions not to. But he fucked up something really major. He made a really dumb, bad decision. And it’s my right now to ignore all the other things that I thought were dumb, too. Maybe if I hadn’t felt I couldn’t talk about him to other people this wouldn’t have happened. I’m not going to let those preferences that led, in one way or another, to him killing himself guide my life anymore. I reject them.

- Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron Swartz’s girlfriend

The New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz is one of the best out there.

I don’t know what it is about Aaron’s story that plays on the emotions as deep as they do, stronger than so many of the other horrible injustices in this world. Perhaps it is the young genius laid to rest so young (he didn’t even make the 27 club). Perhaps it is the injustice of our aptly named justice system. Perhaps it is the death of idealism in the sordid face of reality. Perhaps it is because he wasn’t afraid to live and die as a pure soul. There will always be questions: Is it because he found it incapable of existing in his purest state? Did he choose to depart rather than stick around for the muddy and inordinate details? No one will ever know.

Is suicide an act of cowardice or bravery? The debate rages, but there is something particularly heart-wrenching when such an end is partially the result of a lofty, unattainable idealism. The world is full of corrupting influences, and to keep pure from such devices is a nearly impossible task. Most choose to let this corruption creep into their lives–ever so little at first, but eventually it consumes them. Throughout his life, Aaron had the courage to retain that sort of naive and incorruptible idealism that is the best part of what makes us human.

Montaigne says that you can’t really judge a person until you know how they acted when confronted face-to-face with death. When they killed Che Guevara–a man who Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age”–he supposedly said “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!” In his last moments, he bit his wrists so that he wouldn’t cry out in pain. Death is something we try so hard not to think about consciously, but it’s always there, lurking over our shoulder. Everything we do, the heights of our victories, the sufferings we endure, the lovers we take–secretly, deep down inside, we all realize our own mortality.

There is only one time in my life where I was completely convinced I was going to die. It came upon me quite unexpectedly, and in those final, painful seconds, I kept thinking how disappointed I was with my life– “Wow, this it,” I thought sardonically. I couldn’t help thinking how I’d be letting my family down by leaving so prematurely, and I regretted that I couldn’t tell my mom how much I loved her one last time before I departed. To perish thus seemed disgraceful yet anti-climactic, and it kindled within me a feeling of the most profound yet simultaneously ordinary disappointment — an odd combination that I have never quite encountered since. I realized I would have failed Montaigne’s ultimate test.

I survived, but I learned something valuable about myself through the experience.

Daily life is a grind. It is not glamorous. It is hard. It sucks. But every now and then, you see something beautiful, and it gives you the strength to keep on going. When I reflect on Aaron’s life, what he did, his ideals–it gives me that sort of courage. To keep fighting injustice, and to keep being a good person. It’s so easy to become bitter about one’s life–the person you loved left you, somebody jabbed you in the subway, or you only get two toppings on your Pinkberry when you asked for three. It takes a special kind of person to forget the banal injustices of quotidien life. How do we take a step back and realize how lucky we truly are to be living the way we do? No, we go out into the world and revenge ourselves upon innocent souls–maybe it is an arrogant stare at passersby, maybe it is the hidden political agendas we sow, maybe it is the way we treat those who have no power over us.

Whatever it may be, it is horrible, and it is wrong. It ever so slowly morphs us into sick little creatures that our childhood selves would find unrecognizable. When I sit back and truly think about all the little ways I’ve sold out in my life–all the ways I’ve abandoned the loftiest of my childhood sentiments–it makes me question things. Some days, I am paralyzed by these thoughts, and I waste away the morning and afternoon in useless contemplation on the person I could have been–the person I should be. Sometimes, I find myself wishing I had a tiny fraction of the courage and resolution to be a human being that Aaron had. On reflecting on his disgust at having power over others, he had this to say:

When I go to a library and I see the librarian at her desk reading, I’m afraid to interrupt her, even though she sits there specifically so that she may be interrupted, even though being interrupted for reasons like this by people like me is her very job.

The cliche is that death gives meaning to life. One of the most memorable prose passages I have ever read is Dostoevsky’s account in Brothers about his meditations when he was on Russia’s version of death row in Siberia and was fully convinced that he was going to die:

at the beginning of the journey the condemned man, sitting on his shameful cart, must feel that he has infinite life still before him. The houses recede, the cart moves on- oh, that’s nothing, it’s still far to the turning into the second street and he still looks boldly to right and to left at those thousands of callously curious people with their eyes fixed on him, and he still fancies that he is just such a man as they. But now the turning comes to the next street. Oh, that’s nothing, nothing, there’s still a whole street before him, and however many houses have been passed, he will still think there are many left. And so to the very end, to the very scaffold.

We are all of us that condemned person, deluding ourselves throughout our lives. Most of us live as though we have so many houses and streets before us, and we live this way until we are faced with the brutal reality of The End. If we truly realized the meaning of the scaffold, many of us would live differently. The contemplation of human frailty when confronted with death is difficult, but that consideration ultimately makes us stronger people.

Accepting the fact that one is condemned can be one of the most liberating experiences in life. It makes us realize that the most important things are kindness, humanity and the way we treat those around us, whether kin or stranger. It makes us realize that we can make a positive difference for others, and it makes us think that perhaps there is, in fact, a good reason to be alive.

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A New Chapter

Today, I’m announcing that I will be joining TechStars as Managing Director in New York City.

I love New York. When I first moved to this city eight years ago, living on the sordid shores of 12th Avenue, I discovered a peculiar energy and vitality that I had never quite felt before and have never felt anywhere else since. Throughout my subsequent moves and journeys throughout NYC as well as places around the world, this is the city I’ve always considered home. At one point in the mid-2000s, Manhattan was on the verge of becoming an investment-banking dormitory, but a lot has changed since then, both in the world and in New York City itself. The tech community here has blossomed, becoming a powerful force in its own right. I’m excited to continue to play a role in fostering this incredible group of people, as I’ve been doing for the last several years.

These are exciting times for all of us – with the industry at an inflection point, entrepreneurs are nervous and commentators feed the echo chamber with every new article on the “Series A Crunch”. But the tide will eventually shift, as these macro pendulum swings have a tendency to do. Dry powder in the venture capital industry, which peaked at nearly $80 billion in 2001, has finally worked its way back down to the 1985-1995 trend line. While tech companies that have recently gone public are still on average 30% off their highs of last year, they have made steady gains since the depths that were reached in the latter months of 2012. The degree to which the valuation of private startups (and the industry as a whole) has been tied to the immediate state of the public markets has always been a mystery to me, considering the years it takes to build a great company can last longer than the average American marriage. Real returns in tech don’t come from hopping on the latest bandwagon. But fickle valuations are a fact of life. No one can predict with accuracy where sentiments will go—as the banks in Greece or houses in Spain have taught us—but the world is far from over.

Through all these ups and downs, great entrepreneurs just put their heads down and focus on building great companies, and I am as committed as ever to help build those great teams and nurture their great ideas. One of the most wonderful experiences in my life was in bringing together a community of talented people as director/producer of my first film, an indie documentary. It was exhilarating, and it was an early, intense lesson on how a small group of passionate individuals can work to create something valuable out of nothing. Over the years, as an investor at NEA and Warburg Pincus, I’ve had the privilege of helping to nurture the dreams of numerous teams and businesses, providing resources for them to flourish.

As I look forward to beginning this new chapter in my life with the amazing people at TechStars, I will forever be thankful to my mentors and colleagues at NEA. Above all, I look forward to continuing to foster the wonderful, burgeoning tech community I have come to know and love in New York City.

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