Saturday, September 18, 2010

Autumn in the air

DSC00235 Stitch

Barrington’s town green is transformed this weekend.  There are dark, leaden clouds overhead, filling the blue skies and blocking the sunshine.  The bordering trees are getting a touch of color in their leaves.  The white cricket uniforms that dotted the field every weekend have been replaced by yellow and red football jerseys.

Autumn has arrived in East Anglia.

I could feel it driving the roads around Cambridge yesterday.  Merchandise has changed in the stores; pub signs have appeared reminding people to make their Christmas Party reservations.  Students again fill the narrow, twisting city streets, darkly bundled bicyclers pumping furiously up the hills, not quite leaving clouds of condensation behind them.

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Ten years ago, fall was the time for clearing the yard, prepping kids for school, putting away vacation things, getting ready for cardiology meetings.  In the Netherlands, it was a bustle of activity: traffic swelled with people returning from holiday and offices hummed with purpose again.

I’ve been keeping an expatriate’s detachment this month: observing, photographing, noting the changes.  My heart is still in summer, even as my datebook fills with penciled appointments for October.  The shorter days and cooler nights are triggering long-form narrative dreams, complex stories involving friends and family. 

Taken together, the dreams remind me of how my life has alternated, sometimes a committed part of a group, then stepping outside to start again.  My mind is sorting something out, I’m sure.

A cycle of joining and leaving, like the spring and autumn. fall and rise: return. I’ve been reflecting whether it has  to do with five years of being an expatriate, October 1.  With whether it’s a trait, a way of life, of just another skill?  With the implications to myself and those around me?  With life’s purpose, principles, and happiness.

I remember autumn reflections, raking leaves, were always, also a part of the changing seasons.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Selling the transmitter

WRVU - Neely Tower 1972

As a Vanderbilt Universtiy undergrad in 1972, I joined the campus radio station, WRVU, as a late night DJ.  Yes, that’s me, Dashing Dave, holding forth from the south tower of Neely Auditorium on the 10-watt powerhouse ‘Rock of Nashville’.

And, today, I got a note from the University asking how I felt about a proposal to sell the transmitter and broadcast spectrum, moving to an Internet-only format.

I feel…a bit weird about it all.

First, I’ve long believed that anyone who is still absorbed with their University teams and activities more than five years past their graduation needs to get a life.  Student activities exist for the students, not the alumni, and there’s no need to fossilize a radio station as a memorial to my formative experiences 40 years ago.  If the broadcast station no longer has relevance to, or interest from, the students, then it may be an anachronism that’s no longer needed.

At the same time, would the media board dump the student newspaper, the Hustler, and go to online format just because newspapers are dying?

The broadcast station never had a lot of listeners: that wasn’t it’s real value.  The signal was poked down into the public-service end of the FM spectrum, barely strong enough to cover the campus and surrounding neighborhood.  The student / educational value was in providing technical and management experience running a media outlet, getting an FCC license (credentials for a broadcasting career), learning the rules and etiquette of public media, and being a part of the broader Nashville radio station community.

The switch to Internet-only takes away those learning opportunities: I suppose that the real question is whether they are still relevant.

The University proposes to use the proceeds to “create an endowment to support innovative student media experiences, facilities and operations at Vanderbilt in perpetuity”.  I’m not sure what the educational mission of that is; it sounds like a concert fund.  And the wording sounds like they anticipate stiff alumni reaction to the proposal.

Already, the WRVU DJs group on Facebook is getting excited:  “WRVU may be up for sale!!! ONLY YOU CAN MAKE IT STOP!!”

I guess I’m a bit more sanguine.  If this is an asset that’s molding in the attic and losing value and student interest by the day, sure, sell it.  If it’s a fad to raise quick cash to hop the Social Media express, it’s probably ill-considered.

I feel….like it’s a long time ago but still an important part of me. I’m sad to see the station sold off and it makes me feel a little outdated along with it.

WRVU Tower 1974

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Daydreams and Night Journeys

Pitching

The London Business Angels pitch went well last night, and it looks like we finally hit our message and are gaining some momentum.

Startup businesses fund their growth through a succession of investors.  Initial costs are covered by founders and grants, then incubated through angel investors, before becoming big and successful enough to attract VCs and institutions.  Angels are high net worth individuals who invest in groups (syndicates), each putting in around ₤50,000 in return for equity in the business, hoping to exit at 10x+ multiples within 3 years.  Securing their investment is important, not only because banks and governments aren’t supporting startups, but also because they bring experienced directors with good connections on-board.

Startups connect with angels through “Company Events” organized by angel groups.  London, Cambridge, Oxford all have investment associations that host periodic networking events.  Several (screened) companies are invited to present investment opportunities for the members; startups pay a small up-front fee and a percentage finder’s fee from money raised.  In return, they get coaching, a 12-minute slot to present their business, and access to several dozen interested and active investors. 

New tech, telecom, and medical startups generally ride this circuit for a six months, refining their pitch and assembling a syndicate of a half-dozen backers.  I find that there’s value in regular contact with these other startups, trading tips on which groups have value, swapping services, and sharing presentation ideas.  It becomes a road fraternity, something like actors and salesmen form out of repeated informal meetings.

We’ve done a half dozen of these events now, and get better with each one.  The pitch gets refined and nerves calmed, but most valuably, the repeated critiques shape the rough business idea to executable and investable form.  It is a merciless process, but it definitely refines the plan to potentially successful form.

My business professors talked about the importance of having “Strong positions, Weakly held”.  While I’m certain of what I’m proposing and why it has value, I still need to be prepared to adapt it when a better idea is offered. It’s a tricky balance, because I have conviction and passion about my ideas.  Sometimes it’s hard to take criticism constructively, hard not to be discouraged by repeated rejection. And there’s always the sense that limited time and money are draining away: the business will fail if it’s not funded, soon.

I believe that Europe is as fertile ground for starting a new tech business: there’s talent and money, markets and opportunity.  I bet (my career) that I could live here and make a go of things, getting my ideas funded and my product marketed.  Last night felt like a big step forward along an incremental pathway towards making that happen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Missin’ the Dutch vibe

DSC01049I have to admit that I’m feeling ready to be back in the Netherlands again.

It’s really nothing against the job, or England, or travel, or people.  It’s been a good trip to Cambridge and the US, with some fun times, a lot accomplished, and a wonderful break up in Sweden.

But I’m missing friends and biking, keeping up with the language and days without meetings.  I worry about the progress of my IND renewal, the business partnerships, the money vanishing into an apartment and parking space that I barely use this month.  I think it’s a short-term situation, but plans to come back for a week or so have been repeatedly sidetracked by urgent meetings and overseas travel.

There was a similar time, maybe fifteen years ago, when I was forced to recognize that my sailing club membership had fallen into disuse.  I used the boats with the kids several times each week, but now they were grown and doing their own thing, so the $180 per month went largely unused.  And, without weekly sails, it was hard to justify the expense.

So I gave it up, but I felt very bad afterwards.

It wasn’t so much that I lost access to the boats: I could always charter.  Rather, it was admitting that my life no longer had room for casual sailing. Boating would, henceforth, require planning and effort and be much less frequent. 

I wasn’t sure I liked what this implied my life was becoming.

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As the leaves start to turn to fall colors here and the rain moves in on cooler winds, I think the same concern is at work now. ‘Never as simple as a right/left choice, but a subtle, evolving reconfiguration of my affairs that risks gently making Dutch residence superfluous.

But, equally simply, I’m not ready to give up on that life.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sorting through business books (and minds)

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I browsed the book tables last week, evenings in Chicago, looking for a diversion and insight.  With business weighing on my mind, I cruised through the management and economics sections.  Unfortunately, they are heavily dominated with single-thought manifestoes with single word titles: Blink, Bang, Think, Switch, Empowered, Zapp, Drive, Power, Nudge, Rework, and Linchpin.

No, they really were all there.

I thumbed through a few pages, enough to get the flavor of them.  It’s hard to see why they are classified as business books at all: many are ‘soft’ works of self-help or psychology, with little relation to ‘hard’ topics like product pricing, business strategy, managerial finance, market competition, or product development.  These are the concerns that I need to sort through in establishing and growing a small business each day, and where I would really value experience and insight.

But they all sell well, so who are these books selling to?

I suspect it’s the folks embedded in corporations, where jobs are defined more narrowly, the organization is the competition and the process is the strategy.  It’s a different mindset.  For example, I used to look at budgets as a tool for efficient allocation of resources to assure that projects were completed.  Now I see them as investments needed to reduce risk and secure a return.

So, in a corporate environment, these books would give perspective, perhaps a clever twist to a meeting or report, a fresh anecdote for a planning or review session.  It might help to establish a new point of view in a brainstorming session, or a novel organizing principal for an offsite.  Many times, my managers would hand out copies of a book to the whole department, with instructions to prepare for weekly discussions, chapter by chapter, on how we could improve though it’s principals.

And, in my present environment, I haven’t got the business well enough formed to be able to translate it into processes and structures to pass on to others.  So its not surprising that these books don’t relate to my challenges.

defector_pbFortunately, Daniel Silva had come out with a new Gabriel Allon spy novel, assassin and art restorer.  It’s enough to keep me engaged for most of the week as he makes one escape after another from certain death until the final triumph is achieved.

‘almost like running a small business.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Scarecrows of Haslingfield

In the UK, I live in ‘The Villages’,  rural areas encircling central Cambridge.  Mostly small farming communities with venerable clusters of thatched buildings, they keep longstanding traditions and value their quiet ambience.

Haslingfield is a good example, a cluster of homes around a central meadow, a big stone church, a butcher and a general store, and, uniquely each fall, lots of scarecrows.

  

 

It’s a late-summer tradition; one that everyone seems to join.  The streets are dotted with … colorful scarecrows, none too frightening but each lavished with creative care.

As the sun sets, everyone makes their way to central Well House Meadow for the festival barbeque, an evening of jazz and fireworks.  It’s a very local affair, reminding me of US prairie towns, where neighbors share stories and drink,  nibbles and memories beneath a broad sky accented with stings of colored lights.  Organizers sell hot dogs and hamburgers ; children shriek and laugh underfoot, waving lights and chasing balls.  It’s a vanishing scene, both a warm community event and a relaxed celebration of summer’s end.

 

As darkness falls, the remaining hot dogs are reduced to half price, the fireworks burst overhead, and the band shifts to a rolling rock beat.  The children dance while the adults gather chairs and tables.  It’s over by 10:30, but, like summer itself, it seems to linger on.