Category: life

Oct 12

follow-up

My recent WSJ Accelerators essay struck a nerve and after seeing a few comments posted, I want to clarify a few things — especially about Meebo’s culture and any perceived ill-will. I think some nuance may have been lost in the editing process and I want to make it clear that I love my team, Meebo, and what we built together. This is a personal story about a trying time in my professional life and I wanted to share a boots-on-the-ground perspective. So let me set the record straight:

* Meebo’s culture was as good as it gets and was undoubtedly female-friendly — I’ll never work with another group with so much talent, kindness, and commitment to being inclusive and for making the world a better place. You learn a lot about people after co-founding a company and I can’t say enough good things about my two co-founders, Seth and Sandy. Seth has the keenest strategic nose that you’ll ever encounter and Sandy will out-execute and out-charm anyone in the Valley.

Our first ten employees represented eight universities, three countries, and a 70/30 male/female ratio. Among our senior exec team, we had three women reporting to our CEO and co-founder. Our team’s multiple perspectives led to a stronger and more authentic product. This was an isolated incident that occurred outside of Meebo’s usual business. If anything, I think this shows that building an inclusive environment is hard and you always need to be willing to rethink your own personal views and assumptions. If these issues can arise during my time at Meebo, then I am no longer as quick to judge others either.

* There’s more work to do — Even within an amazing culture, I realize that these issues can just arise organically and subconsciously — in this case, during the hiring process. The most vivid part of this story for me is my coach’s feedback. We talked through a lot of possibilities about why someone would not join last-minute including considering gender, feeling out negotiating strategies, and of course, my own behavior. It’s entirely possible this was just a hard negotiation tactic or that any one of my many, many shortcomings played into this, but I’ll always be struck by the matter-of-fact “this is how the real world works” conversation. It’s the first time I had even the slightest idea that gender was top-of-mind for anyone and that I needed to be more aware of this part of my identity. Whether or not this ended up being the true root cause, I’ve learned to tread more carefully and not assume that people who come from other corporate cultures will inherently share my values and working style.

May 30

what i learned as an oompa loompa


Engineer (left) going Oompa Loompa (right)

Last fall, I heard the spousal call of duty, “Elaine, help me get these doors open.”

My husband, Todd, and his co-founder, Cam, had spent the last few years building chocolate machines and scouting the world for great cocoa beans in an effort to open a micro-batch chocolate factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. The construction crew finished converting the brick automotive garage to a food-safe bean-to-bar workshop and it was time to figure out the nitty gritty details like moving, merchandising, and designing the café & retail space. Todd needed all the help he could get and I was happy to pitch in during those critical months. Now that I’ve come up for air and returned to tech projects, I’ve had time to reflect on what I learned from brick-and-mortar operations:


Even the welds break

  1. For loops are a veritable miracle — At the chocolate factory, something breaks every single flippin’ day. Each morning I gave my evil eye to the roasters, melangers, temperers, wrapping machine, dishwasher, or anything with a screw, fuse, gear, glue, belt, or oil level and asked, “Okay, which one of you little buggers is going today?”

    In comparison, code brings tears to my eyes. If that for loop worked yesterday, then barring catastrophic hardware failures or someone checking in code they shouldn’t, it’ll likely work today. That type of, “if you don’t touch it, it’ll keep working” certainty seems divine. I’ve always loved the Web but I have renewed appreciation for redundancy, unit testing, and monitoring now.


    Lots of chocolate; no email.

  2. Want to release faster? Don’t cut features; cut email. Dandelion’s chocolate makers don’t check email throughout the day (the execs aren’t so lucky). If you can depend upon eight hours of focused time each day, then goals magically happen. With just a back of the napkin estimation, if the team says they’ll make 1000 bars, stop worrying — they’ve got it.

    There are still complications and distractions (e.g. tours, businesses with supply emergencies, daily check-in meetings, and see #1) but there are no late nights catch-up email marathons, no pleas for Agile-enabled predictability, no emergency requests to add two more weeks to the schedule, and no unsustainable sprints to a goal followed by “whoa, let’s never do that again” post-mortem analyses.

    Conservatively, I think that at least 30% of Meebo’s productivity was lost to folks staying current with voluminous Inboxes. Startups want to be hyper-communicative and transparent but those cc’s and long winding email threads add up. However, the first startup that balances getting stuff done despite an ever-expanding Inbox will have a formidable advantage.


    From left to right: future Pulitzer prize winner, Fulbright scholar, and Stanford grad

  3. Tech people, get over yourselves — Dandelion Chocolate has two Fulbright scholars, a Harvard law school grad, Ivy Leaguers, and even outside of formal academic pedigrees, is one of the most talented teams I’ve seen. Tech recruiters spend a lot of time bending over backwards looking for niche skillsets and as a result, we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the talent universe. However, if the folks at Dandelion Chocolate learned to code or design, they’d whoop most of our startup tooshes. Other industries are teeming with extraordinary, passionate people and it doesn’t take an army of recruiters and hundreds of LinkedIn emails to find them. The next time I build a team, I’ll look beyond industry borders.


    Brandon analyzing bean sorting efficiency

  4. Engineering principles provide arbitrage opportunities — When I tell tech people I’ve been pitching in at a chocolate factory, I spot the concerned eyebrows, “Elaine, what about intellectual stimulation?” or a VC will wander to another networking table presumably thinking, “Oy, small potatoes.” Fermentation processes, tempering crystallization structures, and modeling roasting & melanging profiles provide lots of mental fodder. Chocolate making isn’t a traditional startup but engineering principles like small achievable goals, metrics, and A/B testing are very applicable, opening new opportunities in existing markets. The tech world is a fantastic training ground for non-tech industries where there aren’t support networks of meetups, workspaces, and mentors.


    The #1 troublemaker at Dandelion Chocolate

  5. HCI is a digital thing — A little backstory… the women’s bathroom door at Dandelion Chocolate constantly breaks (see #1). From the mezzanine, I can hear the frustrated click-click-click when guests jigger the finicky door lock. At the beginning of the day, I paused when I heard the metal clicking to make sure the bathroom seeker didn’t need help. But by noon, the high-pitched metal-on-metal screeching made my hair stand on end, my stomach churn, and I was ready to do anything… anything… even standing vigilant outside the bathroom to personally escort patrons in and out of the loo… to prevent that irksome sound again.

    When I initially told my parents that I was interested in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), they didn’t get it. And now I understand why. Technology is so virtual that it takes logging, data mining, insightful researchers, and persuasive experts to convince a team there’s a problem on the Internet worth fixing.

    However, when you’re working with tangibles, you are walking and breathing your own User Experience experiment. You see the half-drunk cups when you take out the trash. You can’t help but overhear under breath comments on the street. And if something is broken, you don’t have to do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out whether fixing the bathroom door is a priority. Someone’s going to fix the bathroom door or they’ll go crazy.


    Chocolate for sale

  6. Simple business models solve so many problems — With Meebo, our business model went something like this: we built a product that people like. We monetized a fraction of those eyeballs with brand advertising. We tracked the percentage of users who clicked an ad and logged their engagement times. However, since correlating brand advertising with bottom line revenue is nearly impossible online, we also monitored ad partnership renewals. If all of those metrics were healthy, we were happy. (~60 words)

    At Dandelion Chocolate, the business model is: we make and sell chocolate. (5 words)

    It’s so much easier to build a sustainable organization around a simple revenue model. There are no tensions between ad partners, distribution sites, engineering, and sales teams. There are fewer points of failure. Instead, everyone is aligned towards a simple goal: make something people want.


    The Dandelion Chocolate team goes to Hawaii after hitting a big goal

  7. Equity isn’t a great long-term motivator — In tech, salary is only one component of your compensation package. If your company does well, your stock options can be worth far more than all of your combined paychecks. Equity is “skin in the game.”

    However, the compensation at Dandelion Chocolate is traditional — wages and salaries. And when things get tough (e.g. the temperer breaks during the December rush — see #1), employees’ visions of becoming overnight millionaires aren’t shattered. Instead, it’s an even-keeled, “Okay, what do we need to do to get through this?” What motivates the team is working with interesting people, more opportunities to travel and grow, and building something pride-worthy.

    As a startup leader, you fear an employee exodus at the first sign of trouble. For engineers with lots of options, trouble means it’s time to diversify your equity portfolio and seek greener pastures elsewhere. In some cases, equity can have the opposite effect and even encourage short-term thinking.


    Valencia St crowded with café experts
    (Photo courtesy of Flickr:tofuart via Creative Commons)

  8. The real world has tougher critics — Startups can shield themselves behind a slow beta roll-out. Your mom and dad might follow your company blog but they probably didn’t critique last Friday’s release.

    In contrast, almost everyone in the world is a café expert. On his day off Todd gets calls and texts, “Todd, the bathroom door seems to slide funny…” or “I drove all the way from Sausalito and you just ran out of marshmallows!”

    The feedback is always, always, always appreciated. But your skin thickens a bit. The chocolate factory is a public venue of our closest friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and supporters — the people you want to make most proud. Every one of those visitor has seen hundreds of cafés and everyone has opinions about how they’d make it better. Unlike tech, you’re very exposed. And if we have an off day, we can’t follow-up with an email newsletter or pop-up notification, “We listened to your feedback! Here’s version 1.2 just for you!”


    Customers in the face blind retail mode

  9. Retail face blindness (i.e. prosopagnosia) — Hopefully there’s a psychology student searching for their next phD thesis among this blog’s readers.

    Either I’m very bland looking (totally plausible) or there’s an undocumented psychologic phenomenon for how people mentally categorize service professionals…

    As a door greeter, cashier, or farmer’s market volunteer, I love talking with visitors. A quick exchange can expand into an intimate 10-minute conversation about our families, our personal food preferences, frequently an exchange of names, and sometimes even promises to follow-up via email.

    Afterwards, I’ll say goodbye and walk next door for a sandwich where I coincidentally spot them again. They look at me when I join them in line, look back, and order a croissant. Nothing. Not even a spark of recognition. I’m a total stranger! This has happened frequently enough that I’m now fascinated by the brain’s ability to immediately delete people information — especially people we don’t think we’ll see again. If you end up researching this further or know anything about this, let me know!


    The chocolate chip cookie — a reliable favorite for seventy-five years and likely to be popular for decades to come

  10. Tech is still harder — It’s easier than ever to start a tech company. The food industry is envious of tech’s lack of permits and regulations, workspaces, meetups, access to capital, and the built-in network of angels & mentors. If you have a good idea, the entrepreneurial community will bend over backwards to help you.

    However, it’s much harder to keep that tech company going. The Internet reinvents itself every two years making longterm planning difficult. It’s safe to assume that people will probably eat chocolate in ten, twenty years. It’s hard to guarantee that any burgeoning startup will be relevant in six months. Building a longterm Internet business within a mercurial market is extraordinarily stressful. In addition to the normal trials of starting a business, you have to be hyper-aware of trends and prepared to pivot tomorrow. It’s likely that the team you hired 18 months ago signed up for a different vision that what you’re working on now and that requires further management. Years 0-2 are easier but years 2-8 are harder.

I’m winding down my Oompa Loompa days with more appreciation for brick-and-mortar businesses. If the toilet paper’s out at a restaurant, I’ll try to change it myself. I tip more and curse the evil people who steal tip jars and iPhones (grrrr)! When the Giants make it to the World Series, I tune in to the police radio chatter and listen for riots. I can add “skilled in the Tiffany bow tying method” to my resume.

Above all, I am grateful to have been a part of the Dandelion Chocolate story and to have learned so much from the team. Thank you again!

And of course, feel free to drop by Dandelion Chocolate at 740 Valencia St (at 18th) in San Francisco.


Dandelion Chocolate Door

Apr 27

100 Mistakes

As a startup founder, I wore a lot of hats and I made a ton of mistakes. I was a typical first-time, 20-something entrepreneur with tremendous pressure to scale with the team and business.

At night, I found myself awake agonizing over the mistakes I could see myself making — not letting go of ideas that I liked but that weren’t good for the business, not presenting my ideas effectively in group meetings, or not saying no to projects when I was already overwhelmed. However, I found that if I wrote down my mistakes in a bedside journal, I could return to sleep and revisit my mistakes in the daytime.

The journal grew and grew. And when I started hiring a team, I saw my team members make the exact same missteps. At first, I was relieved. I no longer felt like I was the worst contributor, manager, director, or VP! But I also wanted to compile my mistakes and share my perspective with them.

At first, I tried giving new managers and directors my bulleted list. However, that was horribly ineffective. No one wants to be handed a list from their manager of all the ways they’ll inevitably fail!

So instead, I started focusing on telling stories and setting the scenes for these mistakes. I sketched the scenes of all of the mistakes and started weaving them into a story that showed the professional journey that everyone makes from their first day on the job as a fresh grad to leading the company as a C-level executive.

It’s an illustrated story that I’ve been narrating and sharing with other startups and organizations. I presented the story at South by Southwest a few months ago. Since then, it’s been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and this morning, I presented a few of the mistakes on the CBS Morning Show.

Originally, this was a fun side project that I enjoyed sharing with other startups and the feedback that I’ve heard is that it should be a book. I’ve just started considering that in earnest. If you want to know where you can get a copy of 100 Mistakes, please bear with me — you’ll need to wait a little bit longer!

And at the end of the journey, I’m just grateful to have been a part of a team that allowed each other to grow and to learn from our mistakes. With a little bit more perspective, I am overwhelmed by how much everyone genuinely wants to do well by others and to create something meaningful together. However, old habits, misplaced exuberance, and role ambiguity sometimes get in the way.

Looking forward to sharing more soon!

Oct 27

geeky guide to halloween


Via annedela at istockphoto.com

It’s likely that Halloween can be explained by two tiny almond-sized regions deep in your brain. By researching neuropsychology and history, a primal code appears that describes 5-6 specific stories that terrify our brain senseless. Once you know them, you can design a truly scary Halloween costume or outline many horror books and screenplays.

the floating eyeball that wouldn’t go away


Evil eyeball via moddb.com

When I was eight, I awoke to a bloodshot eyeball the size of a softball glaring down on me. I closed and opened my eyes — expecting it to be gone — but it wouldn’t go away and terrorized the space above my bed for half an hour.

The experience was petrifying. When my politely concerned parents suggested that the eyeball was a dream or a bird, I was aghast, “Dang it – now I have to risk my life catching that blasted, deathly eyeball before you’ll believe me?!”

The mystery unraveled in college when I learned about the brain’s amygdala. I went on a research deep-dive and realized, “Wait a second — this is the secret to a great Halloween costume or horror film!”

the culprit amygdala


Courtesy of Creative Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amygdala.png

The amygdala, a small low-level region of the brain a few inches behind each eye, seems perfectly wired for Halloween. It is responsible for the fight or flight response, keeping a library of what is scary in the world, detecting fearful facial expressions, and waking its dreamer when something goes bump in the night.

Hyperactive amygdalas (generally from stress, sickness, food reactions, poor sleep habits, or genetics) can trigger hallucinations and paralysis while we pass in and out of sleep. The experience isn’t always negative but when it is, it becomes a “night terror.” This is very different from a nightmare. Only 6% of the general population is believed to ever experience the prerequisite sleep paralysis [1] and a full-blown hallucinatory “night terror” (also referred to as pavor nocturnus, hypnagogia, or hypnopompia) is far rarer.

But what’s astounding is that most night terror hallucinations, spanning nearly all cultures and over thousands of years, are remarkably similar!

This suggests that some experiences are universally scary. Interviewing your amygdala is impossible and designing a psychological experiment to scare subjects is unethical. However, night terror accounts provide a convenient glimpse into that hidden psyche.

how a night terror happens


The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)

A few things must misfire for a night terror to occur. First, the amygdala must be in deep REM sleep where it has the most vivid, fanciful dream activity. But before the amygdala runs and flies into wild REM sleep stories, it warns the brainstem to immobilize the body so that the dreamer remains safe and still instead of thrashing about in their sleep.

However, occasionally the amygdala and motor shut-off signals fall out of sync before or after REM sleep. If our mind becomes conscious before the body, we can wake up paralyzed or numb. Sudden-onset paralysis is already frightening but being frozen while a fear-obsessed amygdala is in overdrive can turn terrifying!

Once frozen but conscious, the amygdala hallucinates within the bedroom scene. Suddenly ghostly apparitions appear to crawl out of closets and emerge from shadows while the dreamer remains helpless. The dreamer can even feel their intruder’s cold touch or painful pinches. Night terrors are frequently accompanied by shortness of breath and chest compressions so strong that one account describes them as “a ton of rocks upon my chest.” However, dreamers are unaware of these mechanics and attribute the sensation to the intruder crawling upon their body and riding them to near suffocation. The experience is so real that it is often hard to convince the victim that the terror didn’t actually happen.

Though night terrors vary, all night terrors exploit one fear — an intense and overpowering anxiety that something is “out to get you.” Our amygdala’s worst fear is not public speaking or the dentist but being chased or pursued with the intent to kill.


“Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving.” William J. Wilgus (1819 – 1853)
The headless horseman chasing Ichabod Crane


the 6 night terrors

Here are sure-fire ways to scare the beejezus out of your Halloween buddies. Academic research and historical accounts typically identify the old hag, incubus/succubus, and vestibular motor sensations (dizziness, vibrations). Outside of research, contemporary accounts also include alien abductions and vermin.

1. The Old Hag


Snow White, Frankenstein, Wizard of Oz, Tales from the Crypt, and Night of the Living Dead

Example: Your ghoulish deceased grandmother appears in your bedroom, slowly approaches, crawls upon your chest, and proceeds to suffocate you with her weight.

The old hag night terror refers to an old or deceased woman who appears at night and crawls upon the dreamer’s chest to choke, assault, or suffocate them. Though it’s called an “old hag,” a ghoulish male equivalent exists too. Witches, mummies, and zombies are an embodiment of this terror. With skeletons, the dreamer sometimes awakens to find the skeleton sleeping beside them. And more recently, online forums are filled with accounts of creepy children who crawl into the room to attack the dreamer.

Interestingly, Mary Shelley supposedly developed the vision for Frankenstein based upon a “dream vision” and it’s worth nothing that Dorothy’s interactions with the Wicked Witch of the West occur while she is sleeping. On Halloween, the old hag is represented by the classic pointy hat witch costume.


2. Evil Species


Engraving from Charles Nodier’s “Tales” (probably inspired by Henry Fuseli) (1846), King Kong, Gremlins, Terminator, Aliens,
and Forbidden Planet (1956)

Example: A giant expressionist monster with glowing eyes enters your room through a crack in the window, immobilizes you telepathically, and proceeds to suck the life out of you with its super powers.

Sometimes the menacing presence is not entirely human but a demon, gremlin, monster, or animal. In research, these are typically classified as types of old hag hallucinations and the overall intent is the same — to physically assault the dreamer. However, there’s a subtle distinction that I think makes it worthy of it’s own category. Unlike deceased human corpses, the amygdala appears to invent a threatening superior species. In history, this has been a stronger demon, a monster laden with teeth, or a creature with supernatural powers like a werewolf at full moon. Today, there are fewer accounts of these demons. However, alien abduction stories are rampant and many researchers believe that these are modern night terrors exposing a deep fear of a technologically superior species.


3. Femme Fatale & Ladykiller


Medieval woodcut of lustful Pan from Darrah Anderson with 3:AM Magazine, Snow White (1937), La Chiesa, Dracula (1931),
Phantom of the Opera, Lilith by John Collier (1892), and Basic Instinct

Example: The devil appears in your bedroom and wants to impregnate you with his spawn.

Though it’s controversial to mention, history is riddled with accounts of the incubus (male) and succubus (female) — evil lustful spirits that use their sexual wiles to seduce and assault their dreamers. This is the classic tale behind Rosemary’s Baby.

In the Medieval period, these reports were so pervasive that if a woman unexpectedly became pregnant while her husband was away, the demonic incubus was suspected before infidelity or rape. The male form is controversial and many suspect that historical accounts of incubi have been scape-goats for history’s sexual offenders. However, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Phantom of the Opera are almost certainly of incubus folklore.

The female equivalent, a femme fatale, generally takes the shape of a demonic angel (she-devil) with pronounced sexual features like large breasts, long hair, and sometimes wings. In some cases, the female form attacks the children of the dreamer. Most cultures have a Lilith/Eve temptress within their folklore – some dating back thousands of years. It’s not at all far-fetched to suggest that religion may have taken a cue from a hyperactive amygdala!


4. Vibrations & Noise


Alice in Wonderland (1951), Vertigo (1958), Exorcist (1973), haunted house via clker.com

Example: You wake up to paralysis. You strain to open your eyes or sit up in bed but even the smallest movement is impossible. You’re trapped in your head’s darkness growing dizzier by the second. A buzzing noise joins your darkness and gets louder and louder, closer and closer. You try screaming for help but you are still paralyzed. The buzzing noise is overwhelming and all-consuming. The darkness has become a whirlpool and the buzzing is so loud your head is shaking. At any moment, you’re afraid that your head might explode.

Night terrors do not always include a living intruder. Sometimes dreamers find themselves shaking uncontrollably, falling, dizzy, or just experience the world off-kilter — like a whirlpool appearing within the room, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the heartbeat beneath the floorboards in Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, or violent shaking that cracks bedroom walls.

Some night terror victims have an experience more akin to a noise. The “exploding head syndrome” refers to a noise trapped in the dreamer’s head that spins around getting louder and louder until the dreamer fears their head will explode.

Other noises include explosive door slams, gunshots, or explosions that immediately wake the dreamer. Or, the dreamer is paralyzed but hears far-away noises like screams, laughter, ringing, or wind getting louder and louder foreshadowing something ominous. This explains haunted house noises and perhaps why shaky hand-held camera effects elicit scary spine tingles.

As an aside, it might not be a Halloween costume, but if you’re going to write a horror film, the vibration category is my bet. Pop culture has desensitized us to vampires and zombies but the “exploding head syndrome” is rife with opportunities.


5. Vermin


Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Invasion of the Vampires (1963), rats in ceiling via darksidedisplays.com,
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Birds (1963)

Example: The wallpaper shifts, squirms, and starts crawling with hundreds of rats. The rats crawl from the walls to the ceiling above your bed and then fall into your bedsheets. They keep coming. Soon you are swimming in rats that want to overtake you.

Creepy crawly apparitions vary by culture — one culture’s cockroach is another culture’s chameleon. However, spiders, bats, lizards, cockroaches, snakes, and rats appear frequently on English-speaking forums. If the beady-eyed intruder is alone, it is typically over-sized, flying, and potentially baring teeth. Swarms of critters tend to crawl up ceilings and drop on the bedsheets of their dreamer.

After reading many vermin night terror accounts, I suspect that patterned wallpaper, curtains, and carpets provide the perfect canvas for the amygdala to go nuts. A significant number of vermin stories start with the wallpaper shifting into squirming snakes and spiders. Personally, I love fantastic wallpaper in horror films (like The Shining’s hotel) but I’d be in favor of banning wall and floor patterns in hospitals. Sickness and fever is a predictor for night terrors and the hospital is a place where I definitely want my amygdala shielded!


6. Fear of the Unknown


Repulsion (1965), Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), evil eyeball via moddb.com, monster under bed via monster.wikia.com/

Example: You wake up with a sense of overwhelming dread. You know something is in the room. It is very cold and you feel more alone than you ever have before. Whatever it is has already taken everyone else in the house and is now coming after you. You are petrified with fear. Each second the presence doesn’t reveal itself just leaves you in greater suspense.

Many visual hallucinations are incomplete or semi-transparent versions of themes 1-5: teethy jaws, ghosts, shadowy figures, faceless spirits, floating heads, arms emerging from walls or closets, and countless variations of evil eye hallucinations — floating eyeballs, red glowing eyes, or white eyes with no iris. In some cases, there is no intruder at all but just an unbearable presence that is perhaps worse than if the hallucination took full shape. This could be the monster that lives under the bed or the still shadow who keeps the dreamer in terror-filled suspense.

Within Halloween, the jack-o-lantern approximates a dismembered floating head and it’s easy to see why the ghost costume is so popular. However, if you’re looking for a great Halloween costume, the faceless shadowy figure wearing a brimmed hat and business suit (or trenchcoat) is one of today’s most common night terror hallucinations.


Conclusion

If you’re thinking, “Now I have to fall asleep after reading about the old hag. Thanks a lot Elaine.” I have good news. The more you know about night terrors the less likely you are to have them. And in fact, this may be the reason that Halloween exists at all – the more we reconcile our worst fears the less likely our amygdala goes ballistic when we’re deep asleep.

However, if you freeze with sleep paralysis tonight, many reoccurring night terror victims say that thinking positive thoughts and willing yourself to spin out of bed from your side instead of sitting straight up will break the paralyzing spell.

Happy Halloween!


Via annedela at istockphoto.com

Sep 11

dear elaine

time travel

Dear Elaine circa 2005,

If you’re reading this, it’s because time travel becomes possible and someone has been kind enough to relay this message to you. Please thank them for me too.

First, it’s Elaine from 2012. In 2005, you are enjoying team walks to Peet’s each morning, realizing that your London and Italian cohorts are right – MSN is huge internationally, and maybe you’re even backing down from your stubborn use of camel case thanks to your friends knocking some sense into you. You’re a motley, passionate start-up crew and that crazy clash of perspectives has made Meebo’s product and team stronger. There are very few occasions where I’d confidently stop time to experience a moment indefinitely. However, that oh-so-short walk to Peet’s is one of them.

I’m not going to spoil your Meebo journey. I wouldn’t want to ruin the exhilarating surprises and nothing I could say, unfortunately, could prevent the occasional soul-crushing despair. Fortunately, the good days will definitely outnumber the bad. However, time travel is an extraordinarily rare opportunity and I know you’d be disappointed if I didn’t offer you any advice.

But please be patient, I want to recount a story from our autobiography…

In an airport between flights, your future Elaine meets a retired psychologist and after some social banter, you casually ask, “So at what age do most people become self-aware — demonstrate an understanding of their strengths & weaknesses and some idea of how they fit into their social context?”

This is a set-up. You’re already thinking about follow-up questions. Does self-awareness gradually increase with age? Is there a time when it peaks? What happens when someone becomes self-aware at the age of 80 – is that even heard of?” You’ve been dying to ask these questions forever.

But what he says stops you, “Elaine, I can’t answer that question because less than 5% of people get there… ever.”

To my 2005 existence, I’m so sorry – I know this is a shock. When you were in middle school, your mother reassured you that your classmates might grow up and surprise you some day — she was right. You half-expect a similar right-of-passage transformation to happen with your peer group — it’s unlikely.

Second, it’s not clear what this means for societies coexisting at a larger scale — I can’t speculate on that either.

And lastly, everyone probably harbors some secret, selfish hope that those who’ve wronged us might one day develop some future self-awareness and regret their clumsy missteps — oy, this rarely, rarely happens either. You have to keep doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing.

You already know that you aren’t self-aware. It makes you a little uncomfortable but boy, how you’d really like to join that 5%!

So the advice. I know you’re hoping for a top ten list with easily digestible bullets and actionable tidbits. But, actually, my single piece of advice to you is philosophical and just three words…

“Don’t be self-aware.”

I know this runs contrary to everything within you — your desire for truth, to do well by others, and for self-efficacy. However, when you are self-aware, you can’t dance without feeling ridiculous, talk without freezing mid-sentence, learn at any reasonable speed, or help but blame yourself for not getting along with everyone. The start-up pace is so relentless that if you commit yourself to self-awareness now, you will spend too many hours replaying events in your mind and crushing yourself under the weight of self-criticism. It’s hard to balance the humility of self-awareness with the confidence it takes to run a start-up. Self-awareness is a destination you need to know how to get to but it’s no place to linger.

It’s also refreshing to have people who are woefully un-self-aware in an organization — those are usually the folks who have a lot of perspective to offer, who don’t bow to an organization’s normalizing pressure, and who keep that spark alive. Your team will be a happier, stronger place if you postpone your quest for self-awareness, focus on just being comfortable with your own skin no matter what you learn about yourself, and keep Meebo a kind environment for everyone.

I know what you’re thinking, “Elaine, you came back all the way in time just to tell me this?!!!” Sigh… yes. And from one perfectionist to another, you know I wouldn’t do it without a ton of reflection and consideration. Perhaps your favorite quote will help:

“There are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised; for the question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.” — Oscar Wilde

Love,
-Elaine

P.S. And spend more time with your future husband too!

Jun 26

the recruiter honeypot

In late 2009, I created an online persona named Pete London – a self-described JavaScript ninja – to help attract and hire the best JavaScript recruiters. While I never hired a recruiter from the experiment, I learned a ton about how to compete in today’s Silicon Valley talent war. Based upon two years of non-scientific research, here’s what you should know…

The Recruiting Crisis

In late 2009, my desk was piled with JavaScript resumes. Our homegrown JavaScript framework edged us over competitors but maintaining our technical advantage meant carefully crafting a lean, delta-force Web team. Though I averaged two interviews a day, we had only grown the team by three-four engineers each year.

However, in 2010, that had to change. It was our first year with a real revenue target and also the first time we planned to pivot from our original IM product. We charted our end-of-year goals, quarterly milestones, and eventually backtracked to our team and hiring priorities. To meet our 2010 goals, I needed to double the JavaScript team in just one quarter. If I didn’t, innovation would stall and without revenue, our business would be in serious jeopardy.

I had very little more to give. Over the previous four years, I had already spent my personal networks, seeded every nook of the Web with job descriptions, and experimented with guerilla recruiting tactics like hosting JavaScript meetups across the country, planting hand-written congratulatory notes on the seats of CS Stanford students who’d just finished their finals, coding a spidering engine to find online JavaScript resumes, and even buying Google AdWords for relevant terms like xmlhttp, opendatabase, and localstorage.

But then my recruiting problem went from serious to heart-stopping dire. In the final months of 2009, every female on Meebo’s recruiting team became pregnant within a month of each other. Our expectant mothers were searching for contract replacements but as winter crept closer, finding someone who could temporarily step up to our extraordinary JavaScript challenges during our most critical hiring quarter looked unlikely. I was truly on my own.

PETE LONDON IS BORN

I needed amazing recruiters desperately. After the third expectant mother relayed her good news, I sunk into to my chair overwhelmed with urgency and stared blankly at my monitor thinking over and over, “Oh my god, what do I do now?” My first impulse was to look at the recruiters in my Inbox – specifically those who had pinged me for a Javascript role and presumably had prior Javascript recruiting experience. However, I also needed a recruiter who was smart enough not to poach a founder.

The honeypot idea emerged slowly, “If only I weren’t a founder! Which recruiters would have contacted me as an engineer?” I stewed on the idea of posting my resume online with a fictitious name for days and then one sleepless night, without telling anyone, I woke up and posted a small three-page website with an about page, resume, and blog for a supposed Pete London whose interests and engineering persona mirrored my own except he wasn’t a founder. I swapped out my post-graduate experience with my husband so it wouldn’t be too easy to trace back to me. I returned to bed with a small glimmer of hope – I had been hunting for recruiters for months but now the recruiters would come to me!

LAST RESORT – LINKEDIN

My hopes sank pretty quickly. PeteLondon.com sat alone in Internet ether for weeks with absolutely nada activity. I was about to pull down the entire site when I thought – I’ll just post the resume on LinkedIn as a last resort.

Bam. It was as if I’d finally stumbled upon the door to the party.

On December 10th, 2009, the first LinkedIn message arrived from Google. Mozilla followed on December 15th. Ning and Facebook followed in January. Since then, Pete averaged a recruiter ping every 40 hours and saw 530 emails from 382 recruiters across 172 organizations.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

WHAT I LEARNED

After two and a half years, I learned less about recruiting recruiters and more about recruiting engineers. Here are my eight biggest take-aways to finding the best talent online…

Lesson 1: Recruiters rely exclusively upon LinkedIn

You might be thinking, “Really? This is obvious!” But understand the context. I was interviewing tech recruiters who said they had “moved beyond LinkedIn.” LinkedIn was a “crutch for everyone else” but them. When I asked what techniques they used to fulfill JavaScript roles, they’d describe complex Boolean queries, highway 101 billboards, and obscure search engines. I ate it up! But at the same time, I wondered, “Wait, if this is all true, why hasn’t anyone found Pete London yet?”

To further my confusion, LinkedIn wasn’t how Meebo found its initial superstar JavaScript team. From 2005-20011, only one JavaScript team member was hired via LinkedIn – the rest came from personal networking, meetups, blog scouting, and other guerilla recruiting approaches.

I also assumed that a professional who made their living from recruiting, would want to optimize their response rate and would seek out ways to contact Pete London beyond LinkedIn. Though Pete London’s website and personal email address were just one click from his LinkedIn profile page, the majority of emails still arrived via LinkedIn – especially from larger companies.

Surprisingly, very few recruiters tried more than one communication channel.

TIP #1: If you’re a start-up who always feels like you’re scraping the bottom of the LinkedIn barrel, you’re probably right – LinkedIn is incredibly competitive. Recruit latent talent off the grid.

TIP #2: Recruiters flock to LinkedIn first, if not always. To increase your personal opportunities, join LinkedIn.

Lesson 2: Fear the Silicon Valley long tail

When I wrote to potential engineers, I always imagined my email landing next to recruiting giants like Google or Facebook. As a result, I was careful to emphasize Meebo’s unique start-up learning opportunities, amazing culture, and the opportunity to make impact.

However, my strategy was misguided. The Silicon Valley companies that drew TechCrunch headlines from 2010-2012 (i.e. Adobe, Amazon, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Microsoft, Mozilla, Skype, Twitter, Yahoo, Zynga) only represented 15% of the landscape.

But I should have been more scared than I was – the emails from start-ups and mid-sized companies sounded nearly identical (my own included), “We’re a fast-growing start-up disrupting a lucrative space where your talents will shine and your efforts will be amply rewarded.” By emphasizing the classic start-up experience, everyone sounded exactly the same:

Start-up in Mountain View: “We’ve assembled a world class team. Our monthly uniques have already exceeded [###] million and continue to trend higher at a rapid pace. We’ve reached an inflection point where we’re looking to scale, and with your background I wanted to speak with you about our engineering hiring.”
Start-up in San Francisco: “There are a variety of interesting technical challenges in front of us including scaling for millions of users, developing applications, building a sophisticated data platform, securing user data and, most importantly, ensuring an incredible experience for our users. Aside from our plethora of awesome technical projects, this is also a great place to work. Everyone on the team benefits from free meals and tremendous organizational transparency (weekly all hands, daily stand ups, etc.)”

Larger companies employed an entirely different strategy and anecdotally, I saw more terse, canned emails from larger companies than start-ups. To quantitatively compare strategies, I went through all emails and noted whether the recruiter included role details, company information, or if the email was personalized specifically to Pete. I was incredibly lenient and gave points whenever I could. By almost every metric, the larger companies performed weakest: smallest word count (114 vs. 148 words per email), least likely to describe the company mission or personalize email, and least likely to use a personal email address. However, large companies hired triple the number of recruiters and made up for their shortcomings in volume. Pete heard from an average of 1.4 recruiters at each start-up and 4.6 recruiters at each large company.

You might assume that with more internal recruiters, big companies would do better than start-ups who depend more upon external recruiters. After all, big companies have had more time, resources, infrastructure to make this a key strategic asset. But it turns out you don’t want to emulate the big guys and you also don’t want to assume they are your stiffest competition.

TIP #3: Your real recruiting nemesis is the start-up down the street. Pitch your job opportunities with more specificity than “fast-paced, innovative startup.”

Lesson 3: The recruiting landscape isn’t just filled with recruiters

Only 97% of the recruiting emails can be attributed to traditional recruiting. So who represents the remaining 3%?

Surprise! VCs – specifically early-stage angel investors.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

Though they are a small lot, they are a super lethal bunch with an eye on your jugular artery – your revered first engineers who built your system from scratch. The charming VCs know that your prized engineers could fulfill a similar role at their future portfolio companies and set their hooks early. In most cases they don’t have a specific company or role in mind but are just proactively networking and hoping to be top-of-mind in the future. Given how interconnected and fast-moving the start-up world is, this might be inevitable but woah! good to know.

“I’m with [a VC firm] and my charter is to build out their talent services capabilities. What that means is we are looking for high caliber individuals that would be interested in potentially exploring opportunities with our portfolio companies.

Your experience is exceptional and you have the type of background that should be apart of the network. If you are interested in learning more I would love the opportunity to speak with you in more detail. What we are looking to establish is a “go to” network of top notch individuals that would be a value add to our portfolio of companies. I hope to hear from you soon.”

TIP #4: Keep your engineers happy (i.e. free food, great people, & amazing challenges). When the VCs come knocking, make sure your MVP’s are glued in.

Lesson 4: Can a start-up rely upon external recruiting?

As a start-up, you are inevitably resource-starved. When you have the good fortune to gain traction, you have the setback of suffering infrastructure growing pains while realizing the only way to get ahead is to find time to recruit, interview, and close candidates. In the early days, external recruiters appeared on Meebo’s doorstep and promised to screen and pass along qualified candidates so I could turn my attention back to Friday’s release – it seemed like a dream come true!

However, the first people you hire set your engineering and cultural DNA for the lifetime of the organization and while you desperately need to hire well, can you depend upon external recruiters to step up to the task? Once the scaling challenges strike, does it make more sense to proactively hire a superstar in-house recruiter or to rely upon external recruiters to scale the engineering team?

The answer is surprising – external and internal recruiters perform similarly in start-up environments. Internal recruiters are 14% more likely to describe the position but 14% less likely to personalize the email.

However, larger companies don’t have a viable external recruiting option. External recruiters at the top companies were much weaker overall – 340% less likely to include a description of the role, 140% less likely to personalize their email, and 88% less likely to include detailed company information. Though larger company recruiters were relatively weak overall, in-house recruiters are their only viable option.

Given this significant performance difference, it’s no surprise that larger companies also employ far more internal recruiters than start-ups.

TIP #5: As a start-up, you can sleep easier knowing that external recruiters are a fantastic resource. Find your superstar engineers first and your superstar in-house recruiters second.

TIP #6: Contingency recruiting farms are financially incentivized to hire for less selective companies. For difficult roles, a dedicated contract recruiter may be your only realistic option.

However, before you get too excited about external recruiters, read further…

Lesson 5: Be careful whom you invite into your house

Unfortunately, it’s not all about the numbers. Though external recruiters perform well for start-ups, there’s another side to this story. It pains me to write this but I think it’s important to share…

Meebo employed lots of external recruiters when we were getting off the ground. We had standard 18-month no-poach restrictions with all of our contractors that specified that those recruiters were not allowed to contact Meebo employees within 18 months of our contract expiring. Most of those contracts expired in 2008-2009.

However, every recruiter and firm we’d worked with who was still in the recruiting business tried to poach Pete London.

Every single one!

It’s impossible to know whether our former recruiters were pinging employees during the no-poach period prior to 2009 but I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I doubt they were being malicious – it’s more likely they were just disorganized and didn’t communicate an off-limits list to their staff.

In addition to pings from too-familiar recruiters, there were two cases that left me especially uneasy. In the first case, a former recruiting agency tried to poach Pete London and then 15 minutes later, wrote to me offering recruiting services! I was being pulled on both ends! When I didn’t respond, they repeated the stunt again six weeks later. I got wind that they’d sent recruiting emails to everyone on our Engineering teams and I called them on it (without referencing Pete London). I never heard from them again.

May 13th, 2:20pm

“Hi Peter,

I am a recruiter who works with high-growth, top-tier start ups and industry leaders. I came across your information and was impressed with your background. I’m guessing you may not be actively looking for a new job right now, but I’m sure you plan on continuing to advance your career in the long term, and would be open to hear about opportunities that may accelerate that advancement.

I’d like to get a better idea of your interests and goals, so that I can identify and present to you a few of the most attractive opportunities in the market both now and in the future. You may be pleasantly surprised at what is out there for you. Let me know a good time and number to call you…”

May 13th, 2:35pm (15 minutes later)

“Hi Elaine,

I’m a recruiter… We specialize in the placement of technology professionals. I’ve been working with many excellent candidates from the space and researching companies for them. meebo came up in my search as a good company to consider, so I’d like to present some of these candidates to you for interviews.

Please call me or email me a good time and # to reach you…

Thanks and I look forward to working with you!”

The second case that made me uneasy involved a contractor recruiter who worked from Meebo’s office for nearly a year. During this time, the recruiter went to lunch with the team, participated in hackdays, and became close with many folks. Two years later, that recruiter poached Pete London and a few hours later, showed up at Meebo’s informal Friday happy hour! I was definitely in a queasy gray zone where there wasn’t a strong divide between our personal and professional relationship. Technically, it was hard to nail down any real grievances, but I was certainly aware that our teams were constantly under former recruiter attack.

External recruiters are an inevitable necessity for start-ups. But after seeing all of the emails that those external recruiters generated in subsequent years, I wish Meebo had switched to in-house recruiting sooner.

The external recruiters you work with today are good but they will learn your strengths, your team, and you’ll probably be uncomfortably top of mind later on.

TIP #7: External recruiters are a mixed blessing – be selective and switch to internal recruiters as soon as you can.

TIP #8: Push for at least 18-month no-poach policies with external recruiters.

Lesson #6: The most common little white lie is…

With very few exceptions, recruiter emails were well-written, smarmy-free, and didn’t smell of phishing. I expected far worse. However, if a little white lie is going to sneak into an email, it’s going to look like this…

“I was referred to you as a possible source for a position I am working on here” – Large company
“I previously worked with [Bob] & [Andrew] and have heard great things about you and feel you’d be a great fit…” – Startup
“I understand that you may not be actively looking at this point, but we have heard that you are very good and wanted to see if you might consider looking into a position with [us]” – Startup
“I’m reaching out to you because I’ve been an admirer of your work at Meebo and believe you could be the perfect founding engineer to lead front-end engineering for our product.” – Startup

Little white lies appeared across all recruiting groups and generally took the form, “I was referred to you” or “I’ve heard very good things.” While even unfounded flattery feels good, I learned to be suspicious of vague recruiter compliments.

TIP #9: Flattery will get you everywhere! Take recruiter praises with a healthy pinch of salt.

Lesson #7: It’s time to buy more hoodies

If you are a JavaScript engineer, you know that the talent market is increasingly competitive and you are inevitably feeling the pull of San Francisco. The demand for engineers has intensified over the last two years and recruiting activity has exploded in the foggy north.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and stopped on June 1, 2012

It’s impossible to ignore the momentum that is growing in San Francisco. If I were a start-up getting off the ground today, I would start in San Francisco. In 2011, Meebo saw more of its JavaScript engineers hailing from SF than from Mountain View for the first time. While it’s exciting that there are more geographic options to start a tech company, it’s also time to recognize that companies need strategies for geographically dispersed teams and for recruiting from different areas of the Peninsula.

TIP #10: As the city of Palo Alto or Mountain View, I would make sure that resident tech companies are happy and that public transportation is a top priority.

TIP #11: When writing to candidates, specify where your office is located – it’s no longer assumed that an opportunity is south of San Mateo unless otherwise specified.

TIP #12: The entrepreneurial epicenter is no longer Palo Alto. If you’re south of San Mateo, figure out your SF strategy now.

Lesson #8: Who’s the best in the valley?

You are.

There were 19 emails from managers, execs, founders, and board members who presumably had no professional background in recruiting. However, those non-recruiters collectively outperformed every other professional recruiting segment – scoring just as high or higher by every metric: email quality, outreach technique, and word count. No matter how many recruiters you hire, there is no substitute for a heart-felt note from a future manager.

However, managers have responsibilities beyond recruiting and it’s not realistic to spend eight hours a day reading resumes and penning candidate emails – professional recruiters are a necessity. However, most managers probably hope to hire a recruiter who does the job better than themselves. Of all of the emails Pete received, only 40% of the recruiter emails scored better than the average manager who actively sought out Pete London. And within this top 40%, there were proportionately more start-up recruiters than any other segment.

TIP #13: Look for recruiters with start-up backgrounds rather than large companies.

TIP #14: Hire the best recruiters and treat them like gold. If a product is only as good as its team, then the product is only as good as its recruiting team.

SUMMARY

Of the 382 recruiters, there was only one recruiter who actually figured it out. To do so, he did one thing that no other recruiter did – picked up the phone and called someone who should have been connected to Pete to ask for an introduction. And that’s where the ruse unraveled. If there were one recruiter I would have partnered with during my toughest hiring crunch ever, it would have been him.

However, that recruiter had also recruited for Meebo the prior year and he shouldn’t have been poaching Pete London from our team. He apologized. In the end, the honeypot ended up identifying the one amazing recruiter I already knew about but couldn’t justify working with again.

Ultimately, our recruiting challenge was solved by hiring more JavaScript managers who could help recruit too.

In the next blog post, I’ll examine the “best recruiters of silicon valley” more. With their permission, I’ll list the top five recruiters and a few email snippets.

Stay tuned!

Mar 08

why the symphony needs a progress bar

(photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Choral Society)

About three years ago, my work-life balance started to improve – start-up sleep deprivation was no longer a constant norm. I didn’t have enough time to restart violin lessons but season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony? Yup, I could swing that.

I bought tickets for myself and my husband, Todd, a relatively new concert-goer. But after a few shaky experiences, I was worried that Todd would back out of a subsequent season subscription. I started doing anything I could to avoid the, “Oh my god – is this only the first movement?” mid-concert terror. Seeing the experience from a newbie’s perspective, my UX instincts kicked in and I started jotting down the, “If only the symphony had…” moments. Three years later, here’s my list:


If Only the Symphony Had…

1. A Progress Bar

Even the most devout classical music listener has, “OMG is this over yet?” moments. When you’re not responding to a performance, the experience becomes torturous if you don’t know whether you’ve endured 5% or 95% of the piece. A progress bar would make a world of difference. Nearly every other performance genre has accompanying scoreboards, screens, tickers, or subtitles to track the event’s progress. A JumboTron might be inappropriate but a few progress lights on the conductor’s podium would really help.


MTT Talks

2. People Who Talk

Half of the fun of following a sports team is getting to know the players. At the symphony, you regularly have a two-hour experience with over a hundred performers with absolutely no words exchanged. I love encores because the artist announces the piece they are about to play and I can suddenly match a voice to a performer. Then they become real. I’d love for the conductor or soloist to provide a 3-4 sentence introduction, “Thank you for joining us this evening. Tonight we will be performing…” It’s only natural that the audience feels more engaged when they hear a performer’s voice. In the three years I’ve attended the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve never heard Michael Tilson Thomas talk!


quiet candy

3. Quiet Candy

The symphony season is almost perfectly aligned with head cold season – fall through spring. No one wants to cough during a performance but when that annoying tickle happens, you can only hold your breath and writhe in agony. I’m sure Ms. Stewart would endorse a hospitable offering of wax paper-wrapped candy in the entryway as both a welcoming gesture and a potential quick-fix to hold you over until you can make a mad dash to the water fountain.


4. A tl;dr opener

My typical symphony experience started with leaving Meebo a little early without dinner and finding myself starving in a 101-N traffic jam with a spouse who is thinking, “Wait a second, if we miss the symphony, we can skip the concert and get pizza instead!” We have never missed a performance but we sprinted from the parking lot on a few occasions. With seconds to spare, I’d see Todd crack open his program to find a dense Ph.D. thesis on the first piece. Two-three sentences in, the lights would dim and suddenly Todd was grasping his dark, useless program notes with no idea of what he was listening to.

Here’s a San Francisco Symphony program written for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (click to read the 11-page version):

In all of the 2,000 words, the title, “Exotic Birds”, is never translated! Assuming Todd made it through the first paragraph before the music began, he’d know the commissioner, dedication, and all of the locations and conductors who have played this piece of work since 1956. This is not helpful information for someone who is going to listen to Messiaen for the first time!

The first paragraph needs to be oriented to a 30-second, the-lights-are-dimming panic scan. Here’s what I wish preceded the lengthy write-up:

Oiseaux Exotiques (“Exotic birds”), 1956
Duration: 16 minutes (no movements)
Composer: Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), France
Period: 20th century
Influences: Roman Catholicism, birds, colors, Japanese music, landscapes
Instruments: Piano and small orchestra
Listening notes: Forty-eight birdsongs are played throughout this piece. Messiaen was not familiar with American birds so many of the birdsongs such as the Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Prairie Chicken, Oriole, and Finch were exotic to his ear.


concert notes

5. Program notes on the fold

While I’m harping about program notes, I’ll also mention a personal pet peeve. I dread the moment when I accidentally close my program and realize that I’ve lost the position to the concert notes. I’ll need to carefully open and flip through pages to locate the notes again without squeaking a chair or elbowing my neighbor. I know that it might make economical sense to bury the program notes amidst diamond cocktail ring advertisements but I’d really appreciate a program that naturally falls open to the concert details. If the advertising dollars can’t be missed, then offer a lightweight $.99 iPhone app that has white-on-black text (to avoid glowing screens) that can be flicked in the dark.


6. Programming for beginners

When you launch a new product, you inevitably have a few crazy, very vocal early adopters (why don’t you support Opera’s browser yet?) that you have to selectively ignore if you want a product that appeals to a wider audience. The symphony is the same. About half of the audience attends for a pleasant symphony-going experience. A small minority will be hard-core educated symphony folks who needle, “Why haven’t we heard more atonal music by post-Ján Valašťan Dolinský Slavic composers this season?” The remainder are the musically tepid spouses and children who have been dragged to the hall and are just trying to stay awake and to clap at the right times.

To sustain the symphony, there needs to be beginner programming at every concert – even if it’s just a 3-minute warm-up to perk up newbie ears with a, “Oooh – I’ve heard of this!” moment. Pre-concert talks are fantastic but I’m battling hectic schedules and a seatmate who (though he’d graciously never admit it) probably wants to spend less, not more, time at the symphony. However, it’s these seat-mates who determine whether I repurchase symphony season tickets and who will probably determine whether the symphony thrives longterm.


I can imagine that in two hundred years people will attend rock concerts performed by historical cover bands and wonder, “Why do they require that we stand for the entire concert?” Or, “If the concert really begins at 11pm, why do they print 10pm on the tickets?” The symphony was intended for entertainment and our rigid adherence to its nineteenth century form has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate. A progress bar is long overdue!

Feb 23

happy and fun in silicon valley

Last week, I posted Armed and Dangerous in Silicon Valley – a list of design, programming, and biotech classes in Silicon Valley to keep you armed and dangerous regardless of your background.

However, when you’re burnt out of pixels, bugs, and pantone colors, it’s helpful to balance it all out with some computer-free classes to get your hands dirty, see some sun, and expand your palette beyond what’s available for take-out. Plus, there are some absolute gems available in the Bay Area that you can’t find elsewhere:

  1. Forage SF – Learn how to forage and identify edibles like fungi, nettles, herbs, and other wild ingredients depending upon the season. The Wild Kitchen dinners are amazing too.
  2. Bay Area Glass Instituteglass blowing is the antithesis of coding – it’s organic, unpredictable, and dangerous (and I love it). We’re lucky to have BAGI in San Jose (they’re the folks behind the Great Glass Pumpkin Patch). Treg Silkwood is one of the best instructors I’ve ever seen.
  3. San Francisco Baking Institute – If you’ve read Tartine and wondered why your lump of dough doesn’t look as smooth and springy as their pictures, you’re in luck. I showed up to SFBI’s breadmaking workshop with zero experience while all of my professional peers wore weathered, monogrammed chef aprons and traded bread war. However, it is a ground-up class and on your first day, you will come home with a dozen baguettes. No experience is necessary though their weekend courses are specifically geared to home bakers. It’s an impressive resource that most Bay Area natives don’t know about – the instructors even compete in the equivalent of the Bread Olympics every four years and SFBI has a hotline for sending starter to bakeries across the country when an unfortunate yeast emergency strikes.
  4. 4505 Meats – these sausage making and butchery classes sell out instantly so it’s better to sign up for their e-mail list and pounce when a new class is announced. However, it’s worth the hassle – you’ll have a freezer filled with amazing sausage and meats for months.
  5. SF Center for the Book – has revived the art of handmade books. If you’ve oohed and awed over those fashionable letterpress cards, now you can make them yourself on vintage Heidelberg presses. In November, they also offer Christmas card and gift tag making workshops.
  6. The Bike Kitchen – is run by a community of cycling enthusiasts who teach in-depth bicycle maintenance courses. They even offer a unique program where you can build a bike from the spare parts they have lying around.
  7. 18 Reasons – spend an hour or two with a local Bay Area foodie who wants to share their love of peanut butter, home brewing, or urban gardening with the community. 18 reasons offers casual evening classes nearly daily and even has some availability on short notice. It’s a great community-oriented alternative to dinner and a movie.
  8. San Francisco School of Massage and Bodywork – aside from their professional programs, they also offer occasional beginner weekend workshops for couple massage classes. If you spend 40-60 hours in front of a computer each week, you may need some extra help getting those knots out of your uber-tight upper back muscles.
  9. College of the Redwoods – Fine Furniture Program – this requires at least two weeks of free time and is 4 hours away but it is worth knowing about. The program was originally started by the legendary furniture maker and design philosopher James Krenov who resurrected the appreciation for fine furniture making in the 1970’s. I took the summer workshop when Krenov was still at the center and the class was taught by Jim Budlong. It was transformative – you’ll want to rethink the way all of your furniture has been built and designed. When I attended, our class had seasoned carpenters, students from RISD, and other craftsman hoping to try a new direction. Jim Budlong is still teaching the curriculum that Krenov started years ago. The two-week programs are subsidized by in-state tuition and are absurdly popular. Some prospective students drive to Fort Bragg and camp out at the school’s doorstep to be first to submit their application on March 1st. I faxed my application a few minutes after submissions opened and was wait-listed (though eventually admitted). It’s a crazy and worthwhile adventure.

Tuck your phone away, disconnect from that bug or release, and refresh yourself with something totally new. We’re lucky to be surrounded by so many extraordinary communities who are excited to share their passions.

Enjoy!
-Elaine

Jan 04

New Year & New Beginnings


Meebo in 2005

 


Meebo in 2011

It’s a New Year and I’m looking ahead to new beginnings. In 2011, I found myself with a set of Meebo responsibilities that no longer comprised a 40-hour work-week and a nagging feeling that this was the right point to start gracefully unwinding from my formal tasks. In October, I started transitioning into an advisory role. It was a difficult decision but nothing makes you prouder than seeing the next generation of leaders take the company to new heights and witnessing the company grow from three people to seven offices, tens of millions in revenue, and billions of monthly page views. While it’s exciting to think about what lies ahead, it’s also hard to leave the best group of people I will ever work with. I take my advisory role seriously and as the team needs me, I’ll be back at 215 Castro Street in a heartbeat.

Looking back, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful to our angel investors and to Sequoia for taking a risk on us when we were just a few kids toying around with two servers in an apartment. I am grateful to have been a part of a team that genuinely cares and respects each other. And, I am grateful for the opportunity to realize a product that has touched so many people and for the kind support of our users. These have been the best six years of my life and I wouldn’t trade a single Meebo day for anything.

But most of all, I am grateful to Seth & Sandy. I challenge anyone to find a better set of co-founders. If you don’t know them, Seth is the most savvy business strategist you’ll ever encounter and Sandy will out-execute anyone with her gosh-darned-cute charm. When you work with someone for so long, you learn a lot about a person’s true character. After working with Seth & Sandy for eight years, I know that they are two of the most selfless, fiercely loyal, and talented people you’ll ever meet – much less have the extraordinary good fortune to work beside. I can’t thank them enough for their support and understanding.

As for what’s next, I have an idea or two but before diving into something new, I am finishing projects with Meebo and taking a few months to recharge and reconnect with people I’ve long neglected. The Bay Area consists of an extraordinary entrepreneurial community with tremendous goodwill. After benefitting from the ideas and advice from others for so many years, I’m more than willing to return the favor. Please feel free to connect if you’re looking for an outside opinion.

Looking ahead to 2012, it’s exciting to have a blank slate and the opportunity to start anew. Thanks again for everyone’s support and for believing that passionate people really can make a difference.

Oct 27

Praline Etymology

I’m visiting my father in Durango, Colorado on the first leg of a 10-day Midwest family tour. I haven’t visited my father since 1999 and am long, long overdue.

My father knows I like to collect family recipes and he found a dusty recipe catalog with my grandmother’s favorite recipes. The recipes were written down on index cards and given to my mother as a wedding present forty years ago. I enjoy recipes not only for cooking but also for their history. My grandmother’s spartan recipe for hot water cornbread comes from the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, hot water cornbread recipes have more eggs, sugar, and other luxury ingredients. Todd’s family history is limited but based upon his family recipe for macaroni salad, I can see that the recipe originated from Poland as a sweeter version of the Jewish Kugel before his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. Like DNA, recipes are passed down from each generation. But unlike tracing bloodlines, recipes provide a glimpse into the cultural and historical background of relatives – something that is hard to see through last names and ancestry charts. For any linguists out there, it’s essentially recipe etymology.

My grandmother’s recipe box had WWII favorites like Miracle Whip and canned pineapple cakes. However, I was most curious about the praline recipe. Like biscuits and barbecue sauces, you can see when and where a praline recipe originated based upon whether it favors almonds vs. pecans, brown sugar vs. white sugar, cream vs. buttermilk, and even whether the nuts are halved or ground. However, my grandmother’s pralines index card was water-stained and one of the ingredients, baking soda, appeared to have been jotted down after-the-fact. The damage and side-note were bothersome. My grandmother moved 44 times while she raised my father so even with something as simple as baking soda, it was hard to know whether she picked up a more modern recipe that was about to veer into a praline crunch (popcorn balls and crunches add baking soda near the end), whether the side-note indicated that the baking soda was optional, or whether the baking soda was a critical part of an authentic praline recipe.

To add to my confusion, I didn’t understand why a praline recipe would use baking soda in the first step. From experimenting with brownies, I understood that baking soda affected a dough’s texture and stability. Without baking soda, brownies become molten cake. One of the greatest difficulties preparing pralines is the texture. To achieve a perfectly smooth, golden praline, you whip and aerate very hot caramel furiously in the last 2-3 minutes. However, baking soda reacts to heat and by the time the sugar has heated and caramelized, the effects of the baking soda should have worn off long before that critical whipping step.

It rained all day in Durango today – a perfect excuse to do a culinary experiment and unravel the praline baking soda mystery. I made two batches of pralines: 1) adding baking soda before caramelizing the sugar and 2) adding baking soda after caramelizing the sugar. All of the ingredients and temperatures – about 235°F (or 222 degrees if you’re at Durango’s 6500 foot elevation) – were the same. I hypothesized that the second version would have a better texture than the first.

The difference was dramatic and I was wrong. But, surprisingly, the difference was in the color and taste, not the texture. The recipe with the baking soda added at the beginning turned a lovely golden brown. The recipe with the baking soda added in the final step was paler. The taste was also different – the browner praline was much sweeter. My father validated that the sweeter version, the recipe with the baking soda at the beginning, was the family favorite. I was thrilled to have confidence in the recipe but it was also clear that I did not understand baking soda as well as I thought I did!

I know my praline whipping and spooning technique is not perfect. I whipped these a little bit too long – bear with me!

In an online search, I stumbled across Khymos.org’s baking soda article by Martin Lersch which pointed out the holes in my knowledge. Baking soda is not just a leavener. It also increases the pH level and accelerates caramelization (the Maillard reaction). By adding the baking soda at the beginning, the sugary mixture caramelized more quickly and reached a sweeter brown. When the baking soda was added near the end, the baking soda just foamed and sputtered out quickly without a chance to improve the caramelization. Though the ingredients were the same, the ordering of the baking soda made a huge difference. In this recipe, the baking soda was a caramelizing agent, not a leavening agent.

Praline history is murky but some research helps narrow down when and where my grandmother’s recipe originated:

  • The first praline recipe originated in France and is believed to be a distant cousin of the Jordan almond. It spread throughout England, Belgium, and crossed the Atlantic when French settlers came to Louisiana in the 1700’s.
  • Baking soda was popularized a hundred years after the first French praline in the 1850’s
  • Milk was added to pralines after 1880 (pre-milk recipe I pre-milk recipe II
  • Buttermilk was commercialized in the 1900’s
  • Other praline recipes call for evaporated milk which wasn’t popularized until the 1920’s & 1930’s
  • Geographically, brown sugar is preferred in New Orleans. In the late 1800’s, Louisiana produced sugar but lacked the refineries to process white sugar. As a result, Louisiana had more brown sugar than the East Coast and Midwest.
  • Praline recipes with brown sugar rarely call for baking soda

From the above, I’d guess that someone outside Louisiana discovered that New Orleans pralines could be replicated with a more abundant white sugar if baking soda was added to accelerate the caramelization. My grandmother was born in 1919 in Colorado City, Texas. However, a Google search for “Texan buttermilk praline recipe” doesn’t yield anything similar. However, after a little bit of research, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s family was from Alabama. A Google search for “Alabama praline recipe” yields this very similar recipe. I’d hypothesize that this recipe is almost a hundred years old and there’s enough evidence to suggest that this is probably a recipe from my great-grandmother who died long before I was born.

What my grandmother and great-grandmother did not know is that baking soda is not just a magical ingredient for caramel confections. Martin Lersch’s blog also demonstrates how savory caramelized onions benefit from a pinch of baking soda. Amazingly, Martin Lersch was not able to find anyone adding baking soda to their caramelized onions prior to 2008! From a recipe etymology perspective, perhaps this means that future generations may date themselves with their more modern baking soda caramelized onion technique? It also makes one wonder what other baking soda applications we haven’t discovered.

I’m leaving my father tomorrow with lots of pralines as I head to Kansas City to visit my mother. The oldest recipe uncovered from that side of that family comes from the 1934 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cook Book for Cranberry Ice which is comically terse: “Cook cranberries and water 8 minutes then force through a sieve. Add sugar and lemon juice, and freeze.” Anyone who has attempted to force cranberries through a sieve will appreciate this recipe’s ridiculousness. Fortunately, food mills started reappearing in cooking stores in the 1990’s and this recipe has seen a resurgence on my family’s Thanksgiving table.