Saturday, May 8, 2010

Under the volcano, again…

heatherow ash I flew from Heathrow to the United States today, and, again, Iceland’s volcano intervened.  Departure was delayed by more than two hours as the ash cloud blocked the route to Minneapolis, we were rescheduled onto a southern route that took nine hours rather than seven.

How will we do deals and manage global projects if travel connections become unreliable?  Transatlantic travel is expensive and time-consuming: I spend over a thousand dollars on each round-trip hop, and plan a solid week of work when I’m over.  There’s a lot of advance planning for meetings, materials and  schedules to make best use of the time.

If there’s only a 50-50 chance of getting over, or it’s likely to be hours of delay, what needs to change?

Clearly things have to be more flexible, making earlier landfall in the US so that there are alternative flights to my destinations.  Meetings can’t be planned for the day of travel ( no loss; they’re the worst ones anyway).  Materials will have to be prepositioned, alternate local people will have to be available to attend in my absence,  and backup plans for using WebEx or (as my seatmate from Microsoft reminds me) LiveMeeting to make presentations or participate in discussions will be essential

I’m no fan of these services: WebEx is half-duplex (only one person can talk at a time), requires separate logins to voice and video channels, and has low presentation quality (the delay in seeing a slide change is hugely annoying).  I never have a good sense of the audience reaction to what I’m saying, and there are always problems with volume and distortion as my disembodied voice booms over the hall.

As a result of the ash cloud, my expected three-hour layover in Minneapolis was cut to 4o minutes, but I made the connection. The Wall Street Journal estimates that this will continue all summer, and that air fares will be 25% more expensive than last year, so I won’t be traveling so much anyway

Article of the trip: The Economist reviews the Dutch divestiture of it’s Caribbean holdings. There’s no depth, but it does review the geography and timing as the islands become townships of the Netherlands.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Riding Giants

Laird Hamilton Stone Bridge Biomedical has been in operation since last May - ‘hardly seems that long.  The accountants are preparing our annual audit and we’re picking a venue for the ‘We Survived a Year” party.  It’s actually been a successful start and a wonderful experience; I value the creative and task control and the company has operated ‘break-even’. I’m having fun, have navigated all of the residency requirements in Europe (for both NL and UK visas), and the business structures (accounting, banking, legal, branding) are established and operating well. The future feels filled with opportunities.

At the same time, the core content objectives of Stone Bridge have not been met: I wanted to spend time developing software to aggregate, interpret, and visualize data streams for remote medical monitoring, and that hasn’t happened.  Instead, the business operated more as a consultancy: I took a business development role with  a company making sensors, did some teaching, and supported a handful of friends with ideas in preparing business plans and pitches.

In contrast, CamStent was stabilized, funded, reorganized, and is moving forward effectively around its core product development activity.  ‘Not at all what I would have expected – it was dormant a year ago.  Funding does make a difference.

I like the topics and the people that I’m working with, and I’ve learned to comfortably structure the workday so things get done.  A lot of time goes to writing content and raising money, both time-consuming and open-ended, and I want to transition towards doing more product and business development in the coming year.   Life-balance can still be a struggle, although having a car should help get me away form the home-office and out for some air.

There are three major opportunities that I’m trying to sift in the coming months; left-right decisions that will define the business and my activities into the coming year.

1)  I’ve been invited to take a CEO position with the company I’ve been consulting for.  No question that it’s a great opportunity: it’s in my interest-space, gives me a chance to build the  product and the company, provides a stable income and health insurance,  leads to a potentially profitable exit in a few years. At the same time, it’s working for someone else, potentially a geographic shift away from Europe, a step back from Stone Bridge for at least a year. 

The alternative is to keep a loose association, finish establishing the funding and partnerships they need to get to market, hand it over to new management, then step back and focus on funding and building Stone Bridge.  Ideally, I would use their data streams to develop my software ideas, but would still need funding and time to develop my software prototypes.

I’ve talked with my parents, partners, and friends about this, and they are overwhelmingly in favor of taking the position.

2) I’ve been invited to interview for a really cool interim position that would last for the summer, 3 days a week.  Not a huge salary, but a highly visible and connected opportunity that would boost my street cred a lot and relieve some of the short term money worries. And it would be lots of fun.

But, again, it would be a distraction: I feel like maybe I’m being too opportunistic in considering this.  I’ve spent the past five years hopping from one foothold to the next, ever grasping the brighter stone. I need to decide where that ends, and where I start having a stable, long-term focus on building the core businesses I’ve started.

3) I’m getting too geographically spread out.  I have an apartment in Maastricht, now one in Barrington, and a home in Seattle.  Each carries cost, not just rent, utilities, and taxes, but also visas, transportation, furnishings, and time. I watch the investment cost vs. the revenue gained very carefully, and it’s worth it for the short term.

But I’m not establishing a life anywhere in particular.  A folk singer once old me that I need to shift my weight into commitments rather than hover over opportunities.  The residences need to consolidate, and I need to build a personal life around a home again.

laird_hamilton These key decisions are all, in Dutch parlance, left-right choices, three clear choices to make and pass through.

At the same time, they are all hugely consequential. Once chosen, they define the future, and there’s not time or money to go back to do them over.

Life as ‘Riding Giants’.

This was the 2007 Laird Hamilton movie about finding the world’s best wave and mastering it.  Laird is hugely talented and creative, and he was focused, fearless, and committed in pursuing his goals.  Are these any different?

At the same time, he carved a path for the fun of it.  It seems like that has to enter into this too: am I happy living the outcomes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Opening Stone Bridge West

DSC09839 …or maybe it’s SB Central relative to the Maastricht and Seattle HQs.

  In any case, it would seem to be Barrington.

Half of my current business centers in the UK.  The costs of being a working visitor, including monthly transportation, lodging, and meals, are becoming prohibitive, so I been looking for an inexpensive semi-furnished flat near Cambridge.  The University accommodations office did a wonderful job of suggesting some alternatives, and this was the best of the bunch.

Barrington is a tiny village 10 km southwest of Cambridge.  The community is spread out along a large green (presently occupied by a bouncy castle), and consists of a big church, a gastro-pub (the Royal Oak), a small general store and post office, a bunch of thatched cottages, and a village hall.   The neighboors seem nice, mostly retired and on a first name basis with one another (and mostly Conservative <sigh>)

DSC09836DSC09841

The flat is a tiny two-story with a narrow garden, fronting on green space front and back.  It should be a good (quiet) place to work; unfortunately only broadcast TV and low-speed DSL is available until cable services reach the region next year.

The road to my working associates in Cambridge and Saffron-Walden leads through rolling countryside and exquisite villages, green fields of brown livestock and yellow flax dotted by radio astronomy arrays.  It’s going to be great bicycling territory; no bike paths, but lots of lovely country roads.

DSC09834DSC09844

This location is intended to be a practical supplement to the downscaled apartment in Maastricht, an economical way to manage the ongoing research projects in Cambridge for the coming year.  My primary residence remains in the Netherlands and most of my writings will still center there, but its a milestone getting the Cambridge offices open.

Finally.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

‘twas a lovely day…

I’ll be in England this week, raising money for two startups and getting the miniature office / pied-à-terre finally established near Cambridge.  Before leaving, though, there was an opportunity for an excursion down in the Ardennes on Sunday, hiking the Belgian hills.

It was a fun time, despite the occasional rain and near-winter temperatures.  Last week’s spring sun had brought out the leaves, which curiously start budding at the forest floor and work their way upwards over a couple of weeks. The scent of wet new growth permeates the woods; the colours are brilliant when the light comes out.

Only the wildlife was missing.  The creek runs red from iron in the soil, preventing fish from taking hold.  There are deer hidden away, but no bears to balance the ecology?   A fair amount of logging has been going on, so there’s little old growth left.  Nonetheless, it seems like there should be more animals beyond the occasional insect.

At the end of the trail, there was a traditional Belgian camp-restaurant, serving good country food and large glasses of beer.   We’d also brought along a bit of tobac that was probably older than most of the trees; it was best for finding that none of us had the constitution for smoking any more.

A nice bit of relaxation overall before plunging back into the frustrations of venture capitalism this week.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Adventures in car shopping (part trois)

When last I reported…

  • I’d found a deal with LeasePlan.NL on a blue Ford Fiesta, but
  • Both my personal and business banks had turned down requests for financing.

LeasePlan subsequently reviewed my business, requesting a copy of my plan and my incorporation but not my bank statements, and offered to lease the car if I put 20% down.  Monthly payments were reduced proportionately, and, after verifying the math and the terms with a Dutch colleague, I signed on.  An order was placed with my local Ford dealer, who  notified me that the car would be delivered in 10-12 weeks.

Ack!

Again, I’m used to the American system where you simply don’t leave the showroom without the keys, no matter what the deal structure is.

The lease agency says that if you want the fastest car delivery, you have to know to specify that, rather than the most convenient car delivery.

I started working with the dealer and the lease company to find a shorter delivery alternative.  The choices were:

  • They would rent me a car at 20% discount (about 1000 per month),
  • They would see if another dealer had a stock car that was somewhat equivalent (requires all of the lease paperwork to be rewritten and re-approved, at least two weeks),
  • They would start over, if I wanted to pay the lease penalties, since the dealer had ordered the car.

None were good.  But I sat down and talked things through with the dealer; they had an equivalent demo car coming off off a salesman’s use, if I wanted that for two months, paying rental charges equivalent to the lease payment, I could do that.

Perfect.

So I’m now the proud custodian of a little silver bullet for the next couple of months.  One more problem solved…now if the apartment leases just dovetail in the next few weeks…

Pirate looks at 50Note: Jimmy Buffett got to fly a Grumman Albatross around the Caribbean when he turned 50, so I feel like I have a ways to go to  step up from a Fiesta.

This is a great book, by the way, for turning the corner of midlife.