Finding Health and Joy – 3 Years in SF

February 5, 2015

This photo says it all. Let me share the story behind it.

After spending 27 years growing up on the East Coast and becoming a hard-nosed workaholic entrepreneur, I never thought I’d be one of those hippies from San Francisco talking about wellness and mindfulness. I didn’t think wellness had anything to do with being an impactful entrepreneur.

Seven years ago at age 23, I was 212 pounds. I was often anxious and stressed out. I had a ‘racing mind’ that would keep me up past 2am. I had chronic neck pain from a car crash in Florida when I was 16 that doctors said would require surgery. I ate a terrible diet of processed foods (lots of nachos, frozen dinners, Bagel Bites, Hot Pockets, etc.) and had heartburn 3-4x per week. I drank lots of coffee and was addicted to caffeine, once installing a Keurig machine in my iContact office that would keep the French Vanilla K-Cups within arm’s reach! At my most overwhelmed points, I even had two panic attacks caused by stress in 2008 and 2010.

I hadn’t yet learned how to live with calm and ease while taking on big things in life. I worked all the time but I wasn’t exactly optimizing my productivity and effectiveness and I was far from a shining example of vitality.

I thought being an entrepreneur required me to suffer and work hard. I didn’t get that for me to make a big impact externally, I had to be healthy and happy internally.

The passing of my mom Pauline from brain cancer in 2012 caused me to reevaluate a lot. And the unexpected passing of my Dad in September 2014 from leukemia inspired me to begin to share what I’ve learned so far.

While I’m in the middle of this journey and have so much to learn, the last few years I’ve made a few changes and learned to live with much greater health and joy, while being more productive than ever. I’ll share how I’ve learned these lessons and share three programs that completely shifted my perspective.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2012 I was exposed to all kinds of new ways of living holistically (what they heck is quinoa, anyway??). Yet there were three programs that especially changed me and stood out–The Landmark Forum, The Art of Living Happiness Program, and Camp Grounded. I highly recommend taking all three of these programs, especially to those who work in stressful jobs. Here’s what I learned from each of them…

In the Fall of 2013 I took a 3-day course called The Landmark Forum after my Connect co-founder Anima Sarah LaVoy recommended it to me. What I got from Landmark was a better relationship with my Dad before he passed away (this was priceless to me and I tear up thinking about it now). I also learned how to be fully present in deep conversations with friends and colleagues, how to become a really good listener in any situation, how to ensure I always honor my word, and how to make commitments thoughtfully. The next San Francisco Landmark Forum is next weekend Feb 13-17 and they have programs in 35 U.S. cities and 21 countries.

In the Spring of 2014 I took the The Art of Living Happiness Program in Palo Alto based on the recommendation of my girlfriend Nadia. Art of Living truly gave me my mind back! After learning some basic breathing exercises anyone can do in 20 minutes per day (they call it the ‘Kriya’), my mind went from anxious and racing to feeling calm, present, relaxed, and joyous–which has made me way happier and productive the last year. Art of Living now runs programs in 150 countries and has taught 30 million people to meditate and reduce stress in their lives. The next Art of Living Program in the SF area is this weekend, taught by my friend Ben Henretig. You can sign up at

Then in the Summer of 2014 I attended Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults in Northern California that focuses on teaching you how to play again. There was a talent show, capture the flag, face painting, costumes, camp fires, a talent show, and lots of singing. I absolutely loved the experience, and it broke me out of my serious shell. Please, please, please come to Camp Grounded this Memorial Day weekend!! The next Camp Grounded is coming up this May 22-25 and May 29 – June 1 in Medocina, CA.

Now at 30, I am in the middle of a journey and still have a lot to learn. Today, I weigh 152 pounds (60 lbs less), have calmed my racing mind through the breathing exercises, have gotten rid of the chronic neck pain by learning two simple yoga moves that I learned at Art of Living (sun salutations + cat/cows), have learned to deepen the quality of my relationships, and have learned to love to play again. I’ve been through quite a transformation over the past few years and what I’ve learned has made me way more effective in my work at Connect and Hive.

Here are the web sites for these programs where you can learn more. You can sign up for all three in 10 minutes.

Art of Living –
The Landmark Forum –
Camp Grounded –

The best book I’ve ever read that summarizes so much of what I’ve learned the last three years is The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. Grab a copy on Amazon and you’ll devour it in a day or two!

With the support of close friends, I have changed my diet from chips, Hot Pockets, and Bagel Bites to healthier foods that I now love like tofu, tempeh, quinoa, spinach, kale, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, avocados, broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, almonds, walnuts, cranberries, figs, bananas, apples, oranges, kiwis, lentils, chia seeds, fish, eggs, almond milk, carrot juice, and green tea. Not only do I feel a lot better and kicked the heartburn–the meals I eat today actually taste better too.

Thank you the team members of Connect and Hive and some extraordinary friends (like Nadia, Anima, Kyra, Dani, Bear, Caen, Alexander and so many more) who pointed me toward this path and helped me grow immensely over the past few years. I am so happy to be on this journey with you.

Lastly, I know each of us are on our own journeys toward health. While I’m still learning, I’m lucky to know a few people who are real experts in this field of holistic health for people who are up to big things. So if you want to talk to me about what I’ve learned or talk to others who are actual experts who specialize in this type of thing, just send me a message. In the comments, feel free to share your experiences and any changes you’ve made or programs you’ve loved.

Thank you in advance for your encouragement and support. Here’s to living a life of health, joy, and impact.

Sending love from San Francisco,

Why We’re Building (Plus We’re Hiring!)

March 21, 2013

Below is the story of We’re currently hiring a full-time UI/UX Designer and a Front End Engineer to join our team in San Francisco as our 5th and 6th team members. If you have anyone to recommend or wish to apply, you can email me at

The Founding of

Since May 2012 I’ve been working actively on a new startup called with a truly amazing team of highly competent and deeply caring co-founders. This is the company I want to work on for the next 50 years. In the long term, the Connect team is building a company that uses technology and design to address major human challenges. In the short term, we’re doing something ridiculously simple–we’re putting your people on a map.

I began working on Connect in May 2012 with my co-founder Anima Sarah LaVoy after coming up with the idea at the Singularity University Executive Education Program in April 2012. I was about to take a trip to Kenya to visit some investments there and I just wanted to see on a map all the people I knew who were in Kenya. There was nothing out there that mapped all your friends and contacts–so we decided to build it.

In the Summer of 2012 we built a basic prototype to test out our idea. We got some amazing feedback and signed up 6,000 people to our beta invite list. Now we’re building the full product–a tool for keeping track of all the people in your life.

So far, the alpha is just your Facebook friends on a Google Map with a few filters to refine the list down by name, work, school, location, gender, and job title. You can try the alpha yourself at

Why Are We Building Connect?

My style of startup is one that solves a problem I have. It’s a lot easier to have empathy for the user in your design process when you are the user yourself. When Aaron and I started iContact in 2003, we were solving a problem both of us had as young web designers. We had clients that wanted to send newsletters to stay in touch with their customers–but they had no easy way of sending a newsletter themselves.

So we built the first version of iContact. We were blown away by the response. Over the course of the following nine years, 1 million users signed up for iContact, 70,000 of whom became paying customers. We were able to build the company up to 300 employees before being acquired by Vocus in February 2012 for $169 million. It was quite the journey. I learned a lot. Lessons I wanted to take with me into my next company.

So as I’m building Connect, we’re similarly focused on solving a problem my co-founder Anima and I face every single day. The problem we face is that we meet a lot of people and have no good tool to keep track of everybody.

We are both on lifelong missions to create a better world–and so having a tool that helps us keep track of the people we know, easily visualize them, group them, and message them would be so helpful. We know that networks matter more than ever in the Connected Age and we knew something pretty special happens when you see all of your contacts on a map of the word.

We know we have to earn our stripes like every other startup out there, so we’re working really hard to build a beautiful, easy-to-use, and super useful product that is a 10x better than the current ways people keep track of people (which tend to be a messy collection of Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, iPhone, Android, Outlook, and spreadsheets).

And so we’re going to spend the next decade of our lives building the best tool in the world for keeping track of everyone you know. I’d love for you to use it and give us feedback as we go. You can try our early alpha of Connect here.

Now Hiring Our 5th and 6th Team Member to Join Connect

We have a truly excellent and passionate initial founding team of four including people from Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, iContact, LaunchRock, and Singularity University. And now we’re looking for a full-time Lead UI/UX designer and a Front End Engineer to join our team here in San Francisco starting May 1st–who are passionate about solving big problems and are excited to join as early team members. It’s important for us to all be in San Francisco to build the type of tight culture we are fostering.

I am funding the company through our incubation period personally using some of the proceeds from the sale of iContact, so we’re able to pay both full salaries and provide an early equity position. We hope to provide the benefits of working at a large company with the control, autonomy, and rapid collaboration of a startup. We are all passionate about things like behavioral economics, international development, design thinking, beautiful design, big data analytics, data visualization, AI, natural user interfaces, and the future of computer miniaturization and are looking for kindred spirits who want to express their passion through their work every single day.

If you have anyone to recommend as our 5th and 6th employee, or would like to join the team yourself, just email me directly at If you are applying for one of the roles, please include a link to a portfolio of design or coding projects and a brief description of what you’re passionate about.

If you would be willing to share the link to�our Jobs Page or to this post I would be very appreciative.

Balancing Harvard Business School and

After we sold iContact to Vocus in February 2012, I wanted to take some time to look at the key challenges and opportunities in our world today and how I wanted to use the next 50 years of my life to make a difference–before I jumped fully into building my next startup.

I’m deeply passionate about how our generation can create a sustainable and prosperous world–one in which every human has equality of opportunity and access to clean energy, clean water, food, education, and healthcare. I’m deeply focused on how to use technology can help create a more connected world. I very much believe that the more open and connected we can make the world, the more likelihood our species will have to truly thrive in the centuries to come.

Being 28 years old now, I thought of no better place to take time to reflect on global leadership and prepare for building a second company by doing the Harvard MBA program. I applied, was lucky enough to get in, and decided to go for it. So in August 2012 I moved from San Francisco to Cambridge. The last seven months I’ve been doing the first year of the MBA program at Harvard, loving every minute of it, and learning a lot. Since HBS classes end at 2:45pm each day (11:45am PT) I’ve been able to get a lot of work done this year on Connect even while being in school.

In Boston, I’ve also had a chance to be part of the Harvard Graduate Student Leadership Institute–which has given me a chance to truly reflect on authentic purpose-driven leadership and how I want to use the rest of my life. Depending on how things go this summer, I’ll either finish up the 2nd year of HBS in Boston or take some time off to focus on Connect. At the moment I’m leaning toward taking some time off to get Connect launched.

Thanks for reading!

Innovators Support President Obama on YouTube

October 21, 2012

Back in August in San Francisco, I was interviewed by CNet Co-founder Shelby Bonnie on my thoughts on innovation in America and why I support President Obama in the 2012 election. The interview was part of the Technology for Obama Innovator Series and also included interviews with other entrepreneurs who support Obama like Drew Houston of DropBox, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Jon Bischke of Entelo, Dave Morin of Path, and Aaron Levie of Box.

I, along with these leading innovators and entrepreneurs, believe that President Obama is the best candidate for business, innovation, immigration, and education.

Below is the intro video from Tech4Obama followed by five videos from my interview. Please feel free to share these videos with your network.

Intro – Tech Entrepreneurs on Innovation and President Obama (2:06)

1. Innovation In America (4:42)

2. Innovation and The 2012 Election (2:24)

3. Lessons Learned in Business (3:05)

4. The The Story of iContact & The Steps for Innovation (4:30)

5. Keys to Success & The Start of Connect (3:33)

You can watch the full series of videos on the Tech4Obama channel on YouTube.

President Obama Has Been Great for Business

Here’s how the stock market, job market, and corporate profits have fared the last few years. President Obama has truly been great for business.

  1. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 92% since March 2009
  2. The country has created 4.3 million new jobs since the bottom in March 2010
  3. Corporate profits have increased 64.8% since January 2009

Keeping in mind the depths of the Great Recession during which President Obama came into office, this performance is very strong for one term. Even in normal times, this would have been very strong performance as President.

I also like much prefer President Obama’s perspective on women’s rights, foreign policy, immigration, and creating the jobs of tomorrow in clean energy and advanced manufacturing here at home.

He’s earned my vote for a second term.

What Harvard Business School is Teaching This Tech Entrepreneur

October 8, 2012

Reflections on the Last Three Weeks at HBS:

Over the weekend, I took some time to reflect on my last three weeks at HBS and the key lessons I’ve learned. This post is a follow-up to “What I Learned: Week 3 at HBS.”

As an entrepreneur, I continue to be really glad I’m at HBS. From classmates and through the HBS case methodology and out-of-class simulations I’m learning a lot that I’ll be able to take with me into to the next company–particularly about leadership and organizational behavior.

Here’s more color on what I’ve been up to the last three weeks and what HBS is teaching this tech entrepreneur so far…

A Journey Back in Time to iContact in Q4 2010

This time, I’ll begin with a story.

It was October 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had been the CEO of iContact since 2003. I had recently turned 26. I was definitely learning as I went along. The firm at the time had around 250 employees and 60,000 customers. We had just closed on a $40 million round of financing that August from PE firm JMI Equity. We faced, perhaps, our greatest strategic choice yet and the stakes were higher than ever before.

To continue our growth–should we:

  1. Launch a free version of our product to reach a lot more users (and eventually more paying customers) as a competitor had shown to be possible;
  2. Develop a social media marketing product to enable us to serve our core small business customers more fully;
  3. Move upmarket into serving larger customers;
  4. Some combination of all three.

All the information needed to make the right call was at my fingertips. But what was the right strategic choice?

I spent weeks agonizing over the decision and looking at the internal, customer, and market data from every angle to make up my mind. Then, I kicked off a month long process to bring my executive team in on the planning process. Then, we went through a five month operational process to implement the decision.

Wait a second–did you catch that? I spent a month making up my mind and then I brought my executive team into the process? What was I thinking?

Strategic Mistakes I Wouldn’t Have Made Had I Attended HBS Before iContact

I made (at least) three critical mistakes in the above strategic planning process.

  1. I brought in my executive team after I had spent a month making up my mind on the decision. I didn’t bring them in on the process early enough and I didn’t properly incorporate the information they had into the process. By the time I brought them in–the bias-toward-action get things done entrepreneur in my blood was ready to act and implement. But from their vantage we hadn’t even discussed the key strategic decision yet.
  2. I didn’t create a process under which needed information could be freely brought to the table.
  3. I still thought my job as CEO was to fix the problem rather than develop my team to fix the problem.

One of the key “HBS takeaways” from the last few weeks for me has been that to continue to grow beyond initial success, an entrepreneurial founder CEO must change their very nature and slow down to:

  1. Create effective processes for disciplined information sharing.
  2. Give up as many operational roles in the company as possible.
  3. Bring the senior team in early on during strategy formation.

The Key Difference Between a Start-up CEO and a Later Stage CEO

As I’ve reflected this weekend on the last three weeks of classes, I’ve crystallized some thoughts I’ve been having recently regarding the key difference between the CEO of a start-up and the CEO of a larger company.

As CEO of a large profitable company, if you do nothing, a lot continues to happen just fine–for quite some time anyway. Larger profitable companies have an infinite number of months of operating funds on hand (as long as they stay profitable).

As CEO of a start-up, if you do nothing initially, you never go anywhere. And once you’re burning through cash, if you do nothing, you go out of business. In general, start-ups are burning through cash every month and struggling to survive.

Start-ups may only have 2-9 months of cash on hand (sometimes less!). Start-ups often have a short timeframe until they will be either forced to generate more revenue than expenses, raise another dilutive round of capital, or go out of business. And so, if you’re leading a start-up, generally you have to act. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right now.

The big mountain in front of you will only be moved through the will of a determined, focused, and fast moving leader. You think as you go. You develop a great deal of self-reliance. You intimately understand the customer problem you’re solving because you live it daily. You have a clear vision. And you just make it happen through sheer determination and persistence.

The Chief Everything Officer vs. the Chief Empowerment Officer

In the first year of a start-up, the title “CEO” stands for Chief Everything Officer. You’re often the chief janitor, chief recruiter, chief marketer, chief spreadsheet maker, chief evangelist, and sometimes even the chief engineer. If there’s a problem–solve it. If there’s an issue–fix it. The mantra is: Do. It. Now.

The very reason why so few start-up founders can successfully scale as a leader beyond 50 employees is simply this–start-up founders too often don’t get the training or mentoring they need to go from the perspective of “I’ll fix it” to “I’ll develop my team to fix it.”

After your firm reaches 100 employees, “CEO” stops standing for Chief Everything Officer.

After 100 employees, “CEO” begins to stand for Chief Empowerment Officer. Your job is not to do everything. Your job is not to solve most problems yourself. Your job is to develop your team and empower your team to solve problems.

While fixing the problem yourself and micromanaging the solution is often quicker in the short term, micromanaging actually makes the company slower to solve problems in the mid-term and long-term.

Why? Because micromanaging inserts a bottleneck (you) in the process and fails to develop critical team problem solving skills. This reality seems obvious. But, too often the start-up entrepreneur who actually makes it to 100 employees feels like they’ve succeeded against all odds and so they should just continue doing what got them there.

What is the Job of the Later Stage Venture-Backed CEO?

So, what is the job of the later stage CEO (post-100 employees)? Here’s my take:

  1. Recruiting and leading the senior team and holding them accountable to pre-defined quantitative goals.
  2. Guiding the team in developing a cohesive and focused business and product strategy with clear market positioning.
  3. Intimately understanding the needs of customers and market trends.
  4. Raising capital and managing resource allocation.
  5. Guiding and building the culture of the organization.
  6. Managing investor, board, and analyst relationships.

None of these six job requirements say, “fix operational problems yourself” or “set strategy yourself.” Yet too often–this is what Founder CEOs continue to do way too long into their tenure.

Start-up Genes and Cruise Ship Captains

So why is it that the successful “start-up CEO gene” negatively correlates with the successful “large company CEO gene?” Why must this lesson on micromanagement and process be learned eventually by nearly every start-up CEO as they mature?

This phenomenon occurs, I believe, because the key trait that leads to success as a start-up CEO (which is a relentless bias toward action and focus on rapid implementation and incremental improvement) is often the exact trait that causes that same person to become impatient with the processes necessary to prudently make the right decisions and run the company when it grows larger–at least without the right mentorship and training.

Sometimes the swiftest speed boat racers (entrepreneurs) end up sinking the cruise ship (the large company) by trying to turn it too fast and too frequently. Larger ships require coordinated plans and defined processes to properly turn their direction. Speed boat racers rarely enjoy “process” and “planning” and often have this “success bias” that makes them think what’s worked so far will continue to work.

However, if the entrepreneur is going to build something that long outlives them and makes the impact on the world they hope for, it’s either time to learn to manage a large organization or bring in someone who can.

As HBS Professor Noam Wasserman has noted in his research on Founder-CEO succession, “While the Founder-CEO’s skills were a good ‘fit’ for the contingencies faced by the company before, enabling the company to reach its critical milestones, those skills are usually much less important now that the company faces radically different contingencies (Organization Science, March-April 2003).”

While an outside professional CEO often doesn’t have the same passion for the business as the original founder(s), disaster can occur if the unprepared entrepreneurial CEO keeps the helm too long without the right guidance and mentoring.

the Founder-CEO�s skills were a good �fit� for the contingencies faced bythe companybefore, enabling the
companyto reach its critical milestones, those skills are
usuallymuch less important now that the companyfaces
radicallydifferent contingencies.

I Learned The Micromanagement Lesson – Yet I Clung On to Strategy

As CEO at iContact for nine years, over time I “half learned” this lesson regarding not being a micromanager.

We had built a wonderful and experienced seven person Senior Leadership Team including an CFO, CTO, CMO, Chief Architect, SVP Sales, SVP Support, and VP HR. In every case, I was fortunate to have hired people much more experienced than myself. I let Tim run finance, Ralph run tech, Kevin run sales, etc.

I had learned the key lesson around 2005 that my job as CEO was to hire people more experienced than me and hold them accountable to clearly pre-defined results, not to process. Thus I could step back and the company grew–from $3M in sales in 2006 to $48M in sales in 2011.

While I gave up the individual departmental operational responsibilities (and benefited greatly from having done so), what I never truly gave up at iContact was strategy. This ultimately, was one of the practices that prevented us from succeeding further and reaching a greater potential.

We would have these quarterly and annual strategy retreat sessions–but too often they turned into me guiding the team toward what I thought the right path was instead of the other way around.

Strategy is Really About Choice and Focus

By the end of 2011 at iContact I finally came to understand the value of process and integrated thinking in the setting of corporate strategy. I brought a bit of a more structured process into how we thought through 2012 strategy, asking each team member to prepare position papers on what they would do if they were CEO.

By then, however, the market had become more competitive, the path we had embarked on for 2011 hadn’t worked as well as we hoped, and we had fewer good options to choose from. Ultimately, we chose to sell the company to Vocus in February 2012 to gain liquidity and access greater distribution channels.

So which of the four choices did we choose in 2011 at iContact?

Strangely, #4. We did all three of the above listed options! We launched a free version, launched a social media product, and positioned upmarket.

If had taken HBS Professor Michael Porter’s strategy class back then I would have known that strategy is about choice. A “do everything in one year” strategy rarely works. While things turned out okay–in hindsight I believe if we would have focused on executing one of those key moves in 2011 extremely well instead of attempting all three we may have been better off.

How HBS Has Taught the Key “Micromanagement Lesson” Three Times In The Last Three Weeks

It really wasn’t until the past three weeks as HBS has consciously taught this “micromanagement lesson” three times that these learnings above have truly cemented in my brain. I have to say, learning through experiential cases and team simulations at HBS is a lot less costly than learning on the job!

Over the past three weeks, HBS has attempted to teach us this oh so important lesson of how to bring the best out of a team at least three times…

1. During the Everest Simulation – We were put on a team of five and given the task of reaching the top of Mt. Everest in a computer simulation. We were given the roles of leader, marathoner, doctor, photographer, and environmentalist. I was the environmentalist. While I’ll leave out the details in order to not spoil any surprise for future classes, suffice it to say the simulation was very effective at teaching the importance of the leader creating a process to share information.

2. During the Shad Simulation on Building Circuit Boards -

HBS split the entire first year class into around 75 teams of 12 students. Each team had a leader designated and was in charge of creating an assembly line process to build three different types of circuit boards – economy, deluxe, and imperial. We learned not only how to organize our labor for maximum efficiency of output in a timed contest, but more importantly how to create a process to share information effectively within a team of twelve very smart people.

3. During the Wolfgang Keller Konigsbrau Case in LEAD class -

This case chronicles the path of Wolfgang Keller, General Manager of a Ukrainian Premium Beer Brewery, as he figures out what to do with his head of sales and marketing, Dmitri Brodsky. While I won’t describe the case in much more detail, suffice it to say that Wolfgang was the classic micromanager and hadn’t yet learned the lesson to hold his team members responsible for results rather than process.

It was the class discussion however with our LEAD Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan that left me with the best takeaway of my time so far at HBS. She told us, paraphrasing, “There are two types of leaders. Those who solve the problem and those who develop people who solve the problem.”

I was so glad to hear HBS reinforce these two key business lessons time and again:

  1. Build and develop a team to scale yourself.
  2. Teams which have a good process of information sharing (combined with smart people in the room) generally get much better results than those in which the leader does not create such a process and whose team members keep key information in silos.

What I’d Do Differently Now

Summarizing my key leadership lessons at HBS so far, here’s a comparison of what I thought prior to coming here and what would I have done instead had I already been through the first six weeks of HBS…


What I Thought Pre-HBS

What I Probably Should Have Done — Incorporating HBS Lessons

Strategy Development

I thought my job was to analyze the internal, customer, and market data and come up with a viewpoint relating to company strategy, then to lead my team to seeing it the way I did and have them build the operating plan to implement the strategy. I would often spend weeks analyzing data and only once I had come to a pretty firm perspective, hold a quarterly strategy retreat. Unfortunately the retreat was generally held after I had already made up my mind and thus I missed incorporating critical pieces of information that may have helped us make better decisions.

Instead of brining the full executive team together for 1-2 days per quarter, I should have brought together a small committee of the key members of the senior team to discuss strategy at least monthly in shorter meetings as part of the input and analysis phase. Instead of analyzing quickly at the last minute and then rushing to implement an all-of-the above strategy, I should have forced us to clearly choose and communicate our target audience and differentiation factor and built up a year long program focused just on moving toward that well-defined and well thought-through market position. My bias toward action got the best of me.

Information Sharing

I didn’t create a process under which needed information could be freely brought to the table.

I should have created a process under which needed information related to strategic decisions could be freely brought to the table and one through the painful work to create an agreed upon accounting costing system to better calculate the profitability of our two major customer segments (like in the case of Kanthal the Swedish manufacturer).

Developing Your Team

I still thought my job as CEO was to fix the strategic problem rather than develop my team to fix the strategic problem.

While I did give up almost all operational control to the six departmental heads, I still retained strategic control. I spent too much time cerebrally “in my own head” reviewing data and figures and not enough time pushing the team (who had a lot more experience than I did) on what they would do strategically.

Why Does Learning How to Lead Larger Organizations Matter to a Tech Entrepreneur?

What HBS is effectively teaching me are the key leadership lessons and analytical frameworks necessary to be the CEO of a 10,000 person company. There are so many differences between leading a 100 person company and a 10,000 person company.

HBS seems to be pretty good at preparing leaders to run large organizations. As of May 2012, 40 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were HBS graduates, three times the next school, Wharton, with 13.

But tech entrepreneurs rarely build organizations that get beyond 1000 employees, right? Look at Instagram, who sold to Facebook for around $750M (after pre-close stock price fluctuations) with only 13 employees. One can probably list out most of the tech companies that grew beyond 1000 employees in the last 10 years (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Salesforce, Tesla).

So why does learning the experiential lessons behind leading a larger organization matter to me as a tech entrepreneur? Three main reasons.

  1. Next time I build a company I want to be able to scale with the firm as a leader fully as it grows–hopefully well beyond 300 employees.
  2. Someday I hope to be a great investor–investing in companies that are building renewable technologies, synthetic biology technologies, and information technologies that are making a huge positive impact in the world. To be a great investor a number of your firms will ultimately need to scale well beyond a few hundred employees–and I want to have the background to be able to guide them every step of the way from start-up to well beyond their IPO.
  3. Third, someday I’d love to work in public service and hopefully be able to make a positive difference leading parts of government with lots of team members.

How HBS Evolves The Thinking Process

Through the case method and the new analytical frameworks provided, HBS changes the process behind how you think through problems and their solutions. HBS rewires the neurological structure of your thought. At times I can “feel” two concepts being connected in a new way inside my brain during class.

HBS has no doubt helped me already in becoming more analytical and giving me better frameworks to think through tough decisions. Ultimately as a CEO of a big company–while you may be making minor decisions daily you’re really in charge of making just 1-2 big decisions each year. Getting these two annual big decisions right (and then creating the right plan to execute on them fully) is what HBS is helping me prepare for.

While having a bias toward taking action remains one of the most important traits for the start-up entrepreneur–once you have the company operating sustainably and have an executive team in place (say beyond the first 3 years and ~100 employees) the priorities must shift toward analyzing problems fully and with defined processes.

At the later stage it is critically important to take the time to really analyze the internal, customer, and market data with your team, listen to what they are seeing in their departments and in the market, and taking the time to implement one key focus that brings together the strategic, operational, and financial plans. HBS is really good at teaching these type of analytical and team thinking processes.

Will I forget my proclivity toward having a relentless focus and intense bias toward action in the early stages of new start-ups in the future? Absolutely not. But now, if I can get a company beyond a couple hundred employees again, I’ll have much better tools and frameworks to build upon for long-term growth.

But Can HBS Teach Consultants and Bankers to Be Entrepreneurs?

All this exposition regarding how HBS is teaching an entrepreneur to be more analytical begs the question–if HBS is so good at teaching entrepreneurs to become more seasoned CEOs, can they teach management consultants and bankers to be good early-stage entrepreneurs?

Running with the from earlier metaphor, if HBS can teach speed boat racers to slow down and become deft cruise ship captains, can they teach cruise ship captains to speed up and become adept speed boat racers?

Well, in store for first-years like me in the Spring is a required class called “The Entrepreneurial Manager” as well as a requirement to start a small business in a module called FIELD 3. I am looking forward to seeing how HBS chooses to teach the key principles of entrepreneurship to those from larger firm backgrounds.

What is the key lesson that I hope HBS gets across to MBA students wanting to found their own businesses?

In my experience, the key lesson for the aspiring entrepreneur to learn is to not get stuck in analysis paralysis and to take action every single day toward building something that customers desire while rapidly experimenting and incrementally improving as you get feedback. I’ve found that action, constant refinement, persistence, and a deep-rooted passion for creating a change in the world that doesn’t yet exist are the keys to the early stage of entrepreneurship.

Is a Shorter Program Available?

So what can you do if you’re an entrepreneur who wants to learn how to scale yourself as a leader but don’t have two years to invest in an MBA? You may wish to check out the HBS Owner/President Management Program (OMP), General Management Program (GMP), or Advanced Management Program (AMP).

You get the same professors and get to develop a lot of the same intuition and analytical frameworks in a shorter timeframe (though you’ll miss a lot of the lifelong relationships built on campus).

Key Learnings For Me Over The Last 3 Weeks

Here were my major take-a-ways over the last three weeks:

  1. Leadership – A key part of the leader’s role is to define a process to get information out onto the table.
  2. Leadership - The leader shapes how the team works by managing its work process and thought process to come to better decisions.
  3. Leadership – The transparency of information and individual incentive structures is key.
  4. Marketing – How to use the Six M’s framework to establish clear objectives in advance of a messaging campaign.
  5. Finance – How to calculate the present value of a set of cashflows via the formula Present Value = Cashflows / (1+Discount Rate)^Time Periods) and choose an appropriate discount rate. Calculating net present value is helpful when comparing the values of various projects in today’s money based on the key concept that money today is worth more than money tomorrow.
  6. Finance - How to convert GAAP net income into free cash flow via the formula Free Cash Flow = EBIAT – CAPEX + Depreciation – Change in Net Working Capital. This process is helpful in converting GAAP net incomes into the actual amount of cash that is available per period (month, quarter, year) to those considering purchasing a stake in the business.
  7. Technology & Operations Management - How to optimize the output of a complex production process.

The Cases

Here are the cases we’ve read the last three weeks with a one-liner on each as well as the non-case classes. I write just a sentence on each so as to not reveal any significant analysis. If you’d like to read some of the cases yourself check out HBR Publishing.

Marketing (MKT)

  • Healthymagination at GE Healthcare – Which new products in the R&D pipeline should the GE Healthcare CEO choose to commercialize based on GE’s desire to increase access, increase quality, or decrease cost by at least 15%?
  • Electric Vehicles - Plugging in the Consumer Class - How can makers of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVS), plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), and electric-vehicles (EVs) best position and advertise their products?
  • Population Services International - Will Balbir Pasha Help Fight AIDS? – How can a non-profit working with sex workers in India launch an effective ad campaign to make a major impact in the use of condoms?
  • Pepsi: Lipton-Brisk – How can Pepsi utilize a Superbowl ad for Brisk to re-position Brisk for male millennials?
  • Sephora Direct: Investing in Social Media, Video, and Mobile – How should the head of Sephora’s marketing allocate her budget across in-store kiosks, social media, produced video, user generated video, an IOS app, and an iPad app?
  • Nike Football: World Cup 2010 – How can Nike beat Adidas using social media leading up to the 2010 World Cup?

Technology & Operations Management (TOM)

  • Process Simulator – An exercise using a factory simulation program to develop intuition around what occurs when you introduce variability of machine output into a production process.
  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing – How does a Toyota plant in Kentucky handle an issue with seat quality within their assembly line process?
  • Building Circuit Board Chips Simulation – In teams of 12 we built an assembly line process to manufacture electrical circuit boards and then competed against other teams to produce the most chips with the least inventory left over and maximize cashflow from “operations.”

Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD)

  • Everest Leadership Simulation – Create a process for effective information sharing and lead your team successfully to the top of Mt. Everest without being rescued.
  • Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley – How can a rebellious yet high-performing employee be groomed after tiring of a manager who doesn’t give him the immediate feedback he needs to improve?
  • Karen Leary at Merrill Lynch – How can a branch leader create optimal performance conditions for a Taiwanese wealth manager who does things a bit differently than usual?
  • Heidi Rozen at Softbank Venture Capital – The story of a highly effective networker in Silicon Valley.
  • Wolfgang Keller at Konigsbrau Beer Brewery – The story of a micromanager who tries to solves problems himself rather than building his team to solve problems.

Financial Reporting & Control (FRC)

  • Boston Chicken – Discusses the mid-1990s accounting practices of Boston Chicken (now Boston Market), particularly those related to accounting for the risk of default on self-provided loans to unprofitable franchises.
  • Kanthal – Swedish manufacturer of electrical resistance tools for heating. Discusses how to create a corporate information system for calculating profitability on a per customer, per product, and per order basis and how to get move customers from being unprofitable to profitable.

Finance (FIN1)

  • Subprime Crisis and Fair Value Accounting – What happened in the 2008 financial crisis, specifically related to the fair value accounting of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs)
  • CEMEX – Patrimonio Hoy Microfinance Scheme – Comparing the net present value to CEMEX and their customer of a way of financing cement purchasing to alternative options
  • Ocean Carriers (Discounted Cash Flow) – Calculating discounted cash flow (DCF) of investing in building a ship that the firm would lease.
  • Ecosecurities – International Carbon Finance – Understanding carbon trading markets and calculating net present value on a Chinese ventilation air methane project.
  • State of South Carolina (Capital Markets) – Learning about capital markets and how to calculate mean return, standard deviation, covariance, and correlation.

Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD)

  • Negotiations Day – A team exercise in which we negotiated the terms of the sale of our firm with another team representing the other party. This was an absolutely wonderful exercise and brought back lots of memories of January 2012 for me doing this at iContact. I led the sale negotiations for our team and ultimately failed due to coming across as too aggressive, which caused the other team to run the clock down and give us an ultimatum offer we couldn’t accept. I learned to be firm and clear but to also be cordial :-) .
  • Global Immersion Dinner – Ghana – We had dinner together with our group of ~55 who will be going to Ghana in January for 8 days for a company consulting project. As part of FIELD 2, HBS is sending all 919 first-year students to one of ten global countries in small consulting teams.

Outside of Class

The last three weeks have also included a number of out-of-class activities.

  • Nexus Summit on Global Youth Philanthropy – Two weekends ago I gave a talk at the Nexus Summit on Global Youth Philanthropy on “The Big Picture – How Our Generation Will Create a Better World.”
  • UN Foundation/Mashable Social Good Summit – Attended day two of the conference during the same weekend in New York. Spent time with friends Elizabeth Gore, Aaron Sherinian, and Diana Walker from the UN Foundation, Sergio Fernandez de Cordova and Angela Mwanza from the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council, Brian Forde from the White House, and Kathryn Minshew of The Daily Muse.
  • Ray Dalio Presentation – The head of the hedge fund Bridgewater gave a talk on his macroeconomic theories, investment philosophy, and the right amount of quantitative easing and money supply.
  • Harvard Start-up Scramble – Stephen Douglass from Babson asked me to judge at the Harvard Start-up Scramble. 14 teams presented after working for 40 hours over the weekend to refine their ideas and pitches.
  • Section F Retreat - Last weekend we ventured to West Dover, Vermont to bond as a section of 90 and get to know each other. Led by sectionmate Mike Liu, a team of four of us recreated “Gangham Style” for the section talent show with the help of a chicken, a gorilla, a shark, and a handful of horse stick carriers.
  • Renewables Dinner – I hosted 18 HBS first years who have been working in clean tech for dinner along with an MIT graduate engineering student Tiitian Palazzi and the COO of SolidEnergy Systems Jim McQuade (HBS ‘11). I’m becoming more and more interested in nanotech, solar, synthentic biofuels, and battery storage start-ups and the general question of “How do we innovate our way toward a carbon neutral world within 30 years?”
  • Start-up Work in the Harvard iLab – 3x per week Skypes with the team in San Francisco working on the new start-up. I am working on the new company from the Harvard iLab on the HBS campus each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon and am loving the environment. At Harvard you used to get kicked out for using university resources to start a business. At the iLab, you get kicked out if you’re working on school work. I love it!

As you may be able to tell by now, I love keeping busy.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re enjoying the reflections and writing.

Feel free to leave comments below.

All the best,

What I Learned: Week 3 At HBS

September 17, 2012

We had one of those beautiful two class days at HBS today, and so I’m taking some time working out of the iLab on this Monday afternoon to reflect on the last week of learning before I jump into three cases tonight on the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, General Electric’s Healthymagination Program, and an Operations Class Process Simulation.

I find that we are learning so much and covering so much material that if I don’t take time each week to reflect on what I’m learning so much of it will pass me by. So here’s a summation of what I learned last week, designed someday to help me reflect and recall and perhaps share a bit of what’s happening here with those who someday may wish to come (and perhaps help classmates more easily explain to their parents what’s going on).

This post is a follow-up to Week One at HBS and Week Two at HBS. Just like I wrote in those posts, I am absolutely loving the experience here and every day feel like I’m a little kid in a candy store taking in a fire hose of wonderful new knowledge. If you’re interested in seeing more photos from the time here so far, check out my photo blog. I’m also tweeting from time to time via @ryanallis on Twitter.

I have a sense that future reflections may be more spaced out as the club schedule is rapidly starting to ramp up and I’ve joined the Entrepreneurship Club, Start-up Tribe, TechMedia Club, Africa Business Club, Social Enterprise Club, and Energy and Environment Club. My section (F) is also holding its retreat in Vermont the weekend after this.


Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD 1)

FIELD 1 focuses on “individual skill building to develop leadership intelligence” and “leadership exercises, peer feedback, and personal reflection.” Here’s what we did last week in FIELD.

  • Storytelling and Improv Workshop - The storytelling and improvisation workshop was the most energizing activity we’ve done at HBS to date. It was put on by the Ariel Group and was designed to help us become better communicators and more engaging speakers (and reduce all the ums, uhs, likes, you knows, and unnecessary ands we often use as crutches when speaking). From the student feedback I heard, this workshop received the highest reviews from classmates of anything we’ve done so far. We took the time to visualize a story of a dramatic defining moment in our life and had a chance to practice telling the story multiple times. It was so wonderful to have a business school (traditionally the realm of the left-brained analytical geniuses) focus four hours on creative and emotional intelligence during the first month of classes. The next day, we discussed plans as a section to continue our practice and attend an upcoming show at Cambridge’s ImprovBoston, now being run by my friend Zach Ward from North Carolina.
  • Leadership Presence – We also received a copy of two related books–Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar and Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths by Timothy Butler. We read chapter one of Leadership Presence, which was very good and reinforced the lessons learned in our improv and storytelling training.
  • Feedback Workshop - We went to the Innovation Lab on campus (the iLab) and filmed ourselves giving and receving feedback based on four fictional cases. The lesson emphasized authenticity, specificity, the intention to help, and humility in the process of giving feedback. One can learn so much when they watch themselves on video! Companies should absolutely utilize this technique in their managerial training programs. After experimenting with a few provided feedback formulas, I found that my preferred way of giving feedback to others in a professional setting was to
  1. Ask for permission to give feedback
  2. State the specific behavior I observe
  3. State the effect of that specific behavior
  4. Ask for the individua’s perspective on the feedback.
  • Hay Group Emotional and Social Intelligence Assessment (EISI) – This session focused on the results of a 360 degree review assessment completed by peers, direct reports, and supervisors we selected prior to us coming to HBS. I found I had the greatest opportunity for improvement in: “Understanding others’ perspectives when they are different from my own perspective” and “using metaphors to describe themes or patterns.” This assessment was created by Daniel Goleman’s company. Daniel is the author of the well-known book Emotional Intelligence.
  • CareerLeader Results Report – We attended a session on our future career paths. Not surprisingly, according to the 19 page CareerLeader report I really enjoy 1) Influencing Others 2) Creative Production and 3) Enterprise Control, I am most suited for the following roles: Product R&D Management (99), Venture Capital (98), Marketing (98), Management in Science and Engineering (94), Public Relations and Communications (90), and Entrepreneurship (86). Rounded out the jobs I am least suited for were Supply Chain Management (11), Financial Planning and Stock Brokerage (11) and Production and Operations Management (8). Finally, I learned that the four most important components of a fulfilling job to me are Intellectual Challenge (12), Power and Influence (11), Affiliation to Enjoyable Colleagues (9), and Managing People (9) with job security (0) all the way at the end.
  • Section Norms – A class discussion led by our FIELD professor Amy Edmondson (who by the way was once Buckminster Fuller’s chief engineer — so awesome) on what norms we wanted to have in our section of 90

Should you happen to be interested in obtaining a copy of any of the below cases you can find them on the Harvard Business Publishing web site.

Finance (FIN 1)

  1. Gone Rural Day 1 – Evaluating the operational effectiveness of a $700k per year in revenue rural South African premium basket weaving operation and the tie between scaling social impact and operational execution
  2. Gone Rural Day 2 – Creating a five year pro-forma income statement and balance sheet for this South African firm with various scenarios to determine outside funding needs and understand the link between targeted growth rate and funding needs and the link between key elements of operational efficiency (like the cash conversion cycle and inventory levels) and funding needs.

Financial Reporting & Controls (FRC)

  1. Polymedica Corporation – Discussing whether direct-response advertising costs should be capitalized or expensed.
  2. Accounting for Frequent Flyers – Looking at the frequent flyer accounting practices pre-1991 and how FASB was thinking through changing the accounting rules related to capturing the liability on airlines’ books.
  3. Magnet Beauty Products – Evaluating whether to capitalize a lease on the books of a 32-store chain natural beauty supply company.

Technology & Operations Management (TOM)

  1. Polyface Farms – Analyzing the operations and expansion plans of a sustainable farm in Virginia.
  2. Fabritek – Drawing process diagrams and calculating and understanding the bottlenecks, capacity, and throughput of the various production processes of an integrated circuit board manufacturer in the 1980s.
  3. Dore-Dore – Understanding the pros and cons of cell production (single-process flow) vs. assembly line production in a French hosiery and knitwear manufacturing plant.

Marketing (MKT)

  1. Sealed Air – Looking at how this $4B global public company brought a new video monitoring technology called VTID to market, particularly focusing on which customer segments to go after.
  2. Principles of Product Policy – A module note on new products, product mixes, product life cycles, and managing product and brand portfolios
  3. Emotiv – Evaluating product positioning and go-to-market strategy for a low-cost ($299) neurotechnology headset that uses electrical brain waves to control computer games and other applications. Emotive began in 2003 and after six years of R&D launched in late 2010. As I’ve become extremely interested in neuroscience in the last year (due to my mom Pauline passing away in May from a brain tumor) I found this case really fascinating. Here’s more about the product from the Emotiv web site. After class we had a chance to play with an Emotiv headset. While I didn’t have the chance to use it myself, many of my classmates did. It was absolutely breathtaking to see a computer program controlled with just my mind alone. My classmates were playing games, lifting rocks, and scaring off spirits with just their thoughts. I plan to become a customer when I get back to San Francisco next summer. I was very thankful to casewriters Elie Ofek (our marketing professor) and Jason Riis for writing such a case about such a groundbreaking technology.
  4. Marketing Breakeven Analysis – A module note on how to calculate a breakeven analysis for the number of units a company must produce to cover their fixed costs with gross margin proceeds.

Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD)

  1. Greg James at Sun Microsystems – Creating accountability and effectiveness on a team split between India, UAE, France, and the USA. As part of this case we learned about fairness on teams and our professor Lakshmi Ramarajan (who by the way was once a professional dancer AND managed conflict resolution programs in West Africa!) played a video of a scientific experiment involving Capuchin monkeys. We learned that Capuchin monkeys (like humans) often reject unequal pay. Watch the video!
  2. Taran Sawn at Nickelodeon Latin America – Looking at how to be proactive as a manager in establishing the conditions for high team effectiveness (across performance, team work, and individual development and satisfaction) as a General Manager prepares to temporarily work away from her team due to health complications.


It would take quite some time to list all that I learned last week–so here is just a sample of some of the key items I took away or greatly improved my grasp of last week. I’m so excited to be learning at this pace with such smart and caring peers. I continue to grow rapidly in learning how industries operate outside of the industry I’m most familiar with–software.

So far I have a much better understanding of:

  1. How companies achieve production efficiency manufacturing a physical product — Including how to calculate bottlenecks, capacity, throughput, output rate, work in progress, cycle time and labor utilization.
  2. GAAP accounting — Particularly as GAAP accounting enables to the capitalization of assets, depreciation of assets, and amortization of assets and the effects of these balance sheet items on GAAP net income.
  3. The payment cycle (aka cash conversion cycle) — Particularly with respect to ideas on how to reduce days in A/R and inventory holdings. This knowledge is particularly helpful for someone like me coming from prepaid subscription software (in which you have negative net working capital due to monthly and annual prepayments) and no inventory at all.
  4. Financial ratios and how they relate to a company’s health — Particularly interest coverage, leverage ratio, ROE, and ROA.
  5. Debits and credits — It took me three weeks — but I finally have learned that an increase to an asset is a debit (IAD is how I remember) and an increase to expense is a debit (IED is how I remember). From that I can work out that an increase to a liability is a credit and an increase to revenue is a credit.
  6. Measuring Team Effectiveness – I’ve learned that it’s not just performance metrics that count in measuring team effectiveness. It’s also the “capability of team members to work and learn together in the future” and “individual needs for development and satisfying work.”
  7. Being proactive as a leader – From both the Erik Peterson case and the Taran Swan case I’ve learned just how important it is to be proactive and aware as a leader and address potential interpersonal conflicts right away.
  8. The different types of leadership challenges – Specifically the difference between tactical leadership challenges that require better processes and procedures and human leadership challenges (that require better management, recruiting, training, org structures, mentoring, etc.).


Finally, during a particularly meaningful session in LEAD, the class listed out the traits of the best bosses they’ve ever had and the worst bosses they’ve ever had. I wrote down the list we brainstormed as I found it particularly helpful.

Best Bosses Worst Bosses
Supportive No mentoring
Encouraging No feedback
Asked about family Humiliates people
Care about your success Pits team members against each other
Values-centered Sink or swim environment
Passionate Uses fear-based motivation not intrinsic motivation
Makes you feel useful Doesn’t follow through
Good listener Bad listener
Inspiring Pessimistic
Create a sense of ownership Treats workers as cogs in a wheel
Good Presenter Not open to feedback
Over-communicator Under-communicator
Considerate Doesn’t care about you
Include people in decisions Makes decisions unilaterally
Set clear expectations Unclear expectations
Gives credit and claims accountability Takes credit and deflects responsibility
Enthusiasm and energy Low energy
Commitment to the organization Cynical
Competent and Self-Aware
Open to feedback
High EQ

That’s all for this week. My posts may be coming less frequently in the weeks ahead, but I still plan to post reflections from time to time on my experience and lessons learned. I’m off to read about the Subprime Crisis. Thanks for reading!

Slides: All I’ve Learned by 28

September 3, 2012

Here is the download link to the PDF slides of the “All That I’ve Learned by 28″ project I did earlier this month to document what I have learned in the first 28 years of life and to back up my brain before heading to graduate school. Feel free to share.

The content is broken up into four sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. All That I’ve Learned About Life
  3. All That I’ve Learned About The World
  4. All That I’ve Learned About Business

I’ll be posting the videos in late September.



Week One at HBS

September 3, 2012

I just finished week one in the MBA program at Harvard Business School. I’ve had a long flight out West for Labor Day to write down some reflections.

The immersive experience is truly exhilarating. Everyone is so prepared and intelligent. Sectionmates can hold so much case information in their head at once and then speak extemporaneously on demand. Since everyone is smart and everyone wants to look good in front of their peers, everyone prepares.

The Sections

The Class of 2014 at HBS has 920 students. There are ten sections of about ninety students each who take all the required classes together in year one and create deep bonds with one another over time. In my section (section F), we have (at least) two Ph.Ds, two attorneys, two MBA/MDs, a Navy officer, an Army officer, a solar energy entrepreneur, a fashion entrepreneur, a guy who ran a hospital, and a nuclear engineer. Not to mention some of the sharpest consultants, investors, and bankers I’ve ever met from Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Goldman, KKR etc.

No matter what you accomplished before school, it’s more or less impossible to bring even a modicum of arrogance into the classroom as everyone is equally as impressive. Around a third of our section is from another country, bringing diversity of thought and perspective. While I’m still getting to know everyone in the section, I know we have classmates from Nigeria, France, Russia, Japan, China, India, Singapore, and Brazil.

The HBS Learning Model

Here, it is cool to be smart. We learn from each other as much as from the professor. The professor becomes a facilitator more so than an instructor. The experience of being in a rounded classroom utilizing the case method with so many other inspiring people is unlike anything I’ve been part of before. Needless to say, I’ve loved the experience so far and look forward to the months to come.

The case method works as everyone in the room is as smart and experienced as you are. There are no laptops. There are no mobile phones. Just eighty minutes of pouring into every detail and taking away the enduring lessons from a complex picture–three times per day. You never know when you’ll be cold called to present/summarize the case to your classmates, creating internal pressure to be ready for your moment. Nearly everyone is present and engaged even if they’ve been up till 3am.

You have to track mentally with each classmate comment in order to be able to be ready to make the next comment though quality of commentary is more critical than quality. A quality comment is one that is relevant and timely and moves the learning process forward in the class. A helpful scribe sits in every classroom taking notes on what was said, enabling later grading of participation by the professor.

Students With Competence & Compassion

HBS has made a concerted effort to bring in people who care about making a difference in the world and building shared value. It’s clear that it is no longer possible to get into HBS without having done something that makes a difference in a community or in the world. The smartest investment banker or management consultant won’t get in unless he or she has demonstrated a desire to serve humanity in some shape or form. I have heard that one the primary admissions criteria for interviewers is simply, “Does this person inspire you?”

After the debacle of the 2008 financial and housing crisis and the relatively high correlation between the graduates of top three MBA programs and the architects of the housing bubble, it is refreshing to see HBS admissions seeking to bring together a body of individuals whose purpose is to change the world for the better. I thought upon arriving last week that perhaps 20% of the individuals I met would express a desire to improve the world. Instead, I’ve found the overwhelming majority of students share this desire and realize the power of responsible business leaders to create sustainable models for building a better word. Here, sustainability has the double meaning of financially viable and environmentally viable.

Bravo to HBS leadership for systematically implementing a structure that brings together some of the most competent, caring, and compassionate people in the world for two years of life-changing and experience broadening peer pedagogy.

HBS appears as much a leadership school as it is a business school. It is a place for future and current leaders to refine their skillsets for building and growing sustainable organizational structures regardless of sector and accomplish much more than they could individually while meeting the people that will help them on their journey to impact the world at scale.

While I cannot properly compare the HBS experience to the Stanford experience, I am impressed so far with the promotion of the study of technology (both in the materials sciences, biotech, and info tech) and entrepreneurship.

A Place Friendly to Entrepreneurs

HBS also has made an effort to attract entrepreneurs. Some of my entrepreneurial friends in San Francisco and North Carolina had a difficult time understanding why I’d go to business school–historically considered the place for the risk adverse. I explained the school recently launched a new Innovation Lab (iLab) with available office space for startups and embarked on a top-led effort to welcome those who have started companies or wish to co-found firms in the future.

HBS also has a number of resources housed within the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, an Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, the FIELD program in which everyone on campus is required to start a small business in their first year, and a number of second year courses on technology and entrepreneurship. Unlike the past, entrepreneurship is today seen as a legitimate path into HBS and encouraged on campus.

While it will no doubt be challenging for me to balance leading a start-up on the West coast while being in school, HBS makes it as easy as possible. With a strong co-founder and COO running the day-to-day ops in San Francisco, and the ability to check-in around 3pm after classes each day, I know the company will make it through with my focus split for the time being.

While the school has already taught many well-known entrepreneurs and Global 2000 leaders, often it has been the undergraduate Harvard drop outs (Gates, Zuckerberg) who have built the most well-known technology companies. I can only imagine in the years ahead a number of world changing leaders will emerge from HBS with the innovative mindset and business intuition of a Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Musk.

Operational Execution

Everything pretty much runs like clockwork at HBS, leaving the student endless opportunities for engagement and learning. Much like a Porter strategy case, the interlocking systems of operational execution and aligned processes for strategic differentiation have been consciously architected.

One suggestion I could make for improvement so far is to have a professor teach a required 80 minute session on the alumni portrait project to help guide us in our first day reflections on “what we wish to do with this one wild and precious life.” The only other recommendation I’d have would be to form a Science and Engineering Club on campus to complement the Energy and Environment Club. I hope to be part of creating this club in the time ahead as I’ve developed immense interest in nanotechnology, renewable energy, robotics and synthetic biology this summer after attending Singularity University’s Executive Program and watching Dr. Jeffrey Grossman’s videos from MIT.

Week One Cases

And then, we have the cases. We have read nine cases so far in four days of classes. The average is 2 or 3 per day–requiring the student to hold immense amounts of information in his or her head and create a mental map for rapid information retrieval and summary of each case.

The cases are 15-25 page documents covering actual historical business situations from the perspective of a main character (called a protagonist) with a handful of tables and exhibits with additional detail. The professor often puts the students in the roles of the case protagonists and at times asks students to role play critical moments in a beautifully improvised learning experience that when done right can be magical.

The initial week cases were selected by the faculty to teach broad lessons while exposing us to entrepreneurship, globalization, marketing, social enterprise, and organizational behavior. In Leadership, we’ve studied the case of Erik Peterson at Biometra. In Marketing, we’ve studied the cases of Snapple’s resurgence under Triarc and Black and Decker’s 1992 decision to brand their high end power tools as DeWalt and give them a distinctive yellow color. In Finance, we’ve looked at arbitration in a Major League Baseball collective bargaining dispute with the Kansas City Zephyrs and evaluated the forecasted financials of a Tanzanian water filter startup.

In START, a two day program for students before the beginning of regular classes, we looked at the Zappos case of building a company with a great culture and focus on the customer experience and the awe-evoking case of a Bangalore heart hospital that provided low cost angiograms and open heart surgeries to tens of thousands of patients and then raised equity financing and scaled globally.

The most compelling moment often comes at the end of class when we are shown videos of what happened after the case (or get to hear from the case protagonists in person themselves).

Just in this first week I’ve picked up really valuable lessons around branding, management, and financial planning. Synthesizing these diverse lessons into a whole picture each week will be an enjoyable experience for me as I grow and learn. Time and again, we’ve learned from the cases (Black and Decker and Snapple in particular) that strategy is a collection of integrated processes that differentiate the company and its products and align internal resources toward becoming the best in the world at providing a particular type of value to a particular type of customer.

Irrational Exuberance?

In sum, if you have an opportunity to come to HBS, even if it’s for one of the many Executive Education programs, go for it. And if you wish to be a solid candidate for the HBS MBA program in the future, invest just as much time and effort in the work you’re doing to make a positive impact in the world as you are in your profession. Or even better, ensure that your profession is actually how to you wish to change the world (i.e. you’re working for a company or organization whose particular way of changing the world aligns with how you want to change the world).

I likely sound exuberant and excited. It is because I am! I am glad to be here. Almost giddy like a little kid in a candy store, perhaps. It is a great privilege to have these twenty months ahead of me to learn and grow and be pushed. Afterward I will take on an immense responsibility to use my remaining time on this planet to make a difference. I look forward to that day while being fully focused on the present.

We’re Hiring a Founding Technical Team in San Francisco

June 15, 2012

Hiring a Founding Technical Team

Ryan Allis and Anima Sarah LaVoy are actively seeking four exceptional founding technical team members (CTO/Chief Architect, Data Scientist, API Engineer, Sr Engineer) with mobile and/or big data experience to join their company and 5-person team in Noe Valley, San Francisco. The company’s name is not being widely shared for a few more weeks while the team acquires domain assets.

The Company & Product

The company is a mobile/web software start-up focused on organizing the world’s human relationships and enabling the scaling of personal connection much more efficiently than existing tools. We are working to build a company for the long-term, focused on products at the intersection of machine learning, relationship mapping, big data, and beautiful design. Our first product is a mobile and web application that combines left-brain data analytics with right-brain visual creativity to connect humans more intuitively. We are focused on building a company for the long-term as a platform for solving some of humanity’s greatest challenges. We have a global social consciousness in our core combined with the mindset of fast-moving, pragmatic, systems-thinking builders. We are happy to share more on the problem set we are solving for in person or via Skype.


The company is led by Ryan Allis and Anima Sarah LaVoy. Ryan was the co-founder and CEO of iContact from July 2003 until February 2012 when it was acquired by Vocus (NASDAQ: VOCS) for $169m. Ryan is providing the initial funding for the company. Anima is our Chief People, Philosophy, and Psychology Officer (C3PO for the Star Wars fans out there), holds an Oxford MBA, and is the founder of Swing Semester. Together with our quickly growing team of five, we’re working out of a spacious home in Noe Valley/Eureka Heights in San Francisco this summer, and plan to get an office in the Mission this Fall.


We are actively and immediately looking for four exceptional people to hire in SF to join us in this new venture. The ideal start-date would be in the first half of July. We are looking for individuals who are both highly technically competent and passionate about making a difference in the world. We can offer a strong compensation package, an early equity position, and an amazing experience with super fun and passionate people. While we’re open to individuals from multiple backgrounds, we’re primarily seeking applicants from Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, and Salesforce who want to get involved in an earlier-stage company in which they will have more daily impact and return potential.

  1. Technical Co-Founder / CTO / Architect – Looking for a founding CTO player/coach who has built and exited a company or played a VP / C-level role in a company of 30-500 employees. Must be comfortable with mobile apps, social APIs, and big data architecture and able to manage but also structure, code, and build. Looking for someone to drive the technical direction for a company out to solve an immensely challenging technical problem.
  2. Data Scientist – Seeking data scientist that can set up incoming pipes of government, social, and public data, and create algorithms to intelligently process and categorize petabytes of data. Familiarity with Hadoop, Redis, and similar technologies is very helpful.
  3. API Engineer – Seeking API engineer who can structure, build, and document the product API from the beginning and initially connect into developer networks.
  4. Senior Engineer – Experience with high volume scalability and security a plus. Knowledge of Python/PHP/JSON, social APIs, security, and big data architecture helpful.

Please email with your CV/portfolio and any information you’d like to include.

For Additional Information


The Adventure Continues in San Francisco

June 15, 2012

I’m drinking an Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout at my house in San Francisco. Our Chief of Staff candidate is for some reason awesomely dancing in the kitchen behind me. I’m looking out the window at a view of the Castro, Mission, Potrero Hill, SOMA, Russian Hill, Corona Heights, and Buena Vista.

So here’s the story…

On April 14th I was in Mountain View, CA during a lecture on neuroscience at the Singularity University Executive Education program. A eureka moment had just occurred during a rather intense theta wave. The vision for what I just had to create came into my head. The same focused intensity that overtook me in the Summer of 2003 while building out iContact with Aaron had returned.

The next few days I was in whiteboard sketch-up mode in pure John Nash style. I was also on the lookout for a co-founder and knew I would need to start building out a great technical team.

Meeting My Co-Founder

A week later, Anima Sarah LaVoy (whose first name means “soul”) and I met here in San Francisco through our mutual friend Bear and her boyfriend Daniel, an engineer at Google. She was a brilliant and ebullient 31 year-old with an Oxford MBA, a decade of experience building complex political organizations, and a deep understanding of psychology and the human operating system. Turns out, she had the same problem I had: “How to intelligently scale our ability to organize and visualize our human relationships.” We decided to work on solving this problem together.

The Summer of 2012 in SF

By May 4th, I had decided to move to San Francisco for (at least) the summer and start a new company to bring this vision to market. I wrote my friend Burcu in an email:

“The intelligence and ambition and care and values of the people here is unmatched anywhere in the world. My best friends from so many different walks of life all happen to be living within a 6 block radius of a park called Dolores Park between the neighborhoods of the Castro and the Mission. I have found a great home to rent for the summer right here in the middle of it all, on a nice hill with a great view of the city. The values driven innovative culture here is palpable and this area of the world is truly the vanguard of our culture. It’s sort of like 1968 with iPhones. Imagine if the social justice passion of the 60s were combined with the connection and communication technology of 2012. Imagine how you could change the world in that environment. And then you wake up with a smile and realize that’s what’s actually happening. I’m like a little kid in a candy store here.

I’m consistently amazed that it feels like the future here. People are commonly talking about genomics, self-driving cars, 3d printing, the application of smart phone diagnostics to global public health in remote villages, artificial intelligence, robotics, and solving humanity’s greatest challenges. I may have found my tribe. Oh, and they dance and dress up in banana costumes! There is an amazing casual run called Bay to Breakers coming up on May 20th when everyone dresses up and jogs across the city as groups of penguins or bears or salmon or bananas. You must join my group of penguins.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much summed up my thoughts on San Francisco as the Summer of 2012 begins.

Life, Death, Renewal & Innovation

On May 6 I left for my HBS interview in Boston and then Kenya for a week for a trip with the UN Foundation to Nairobi and the Kakuma Refugee Camp near the South Sudan border. After coming upon two Somali refugee teenagers who had Android smart phones in the remotest part of Kenya– I was hit by quite an obvious yet significant realization–smart mobile touch devices will be nearly ubiquitous globally within three years.

Kakuma Refugee Camp near the Kenya/South Sudan border

When I returned from Kenya to the States, I went to Florida as my mom was ill. While I was there, she ended up passing away from brain cancer on May 25th six months after being diagnosed. She was a social worker from Yorkshire, England who primarily worked with mentally handicapped individuals during her professional career. She taught me to be confident, think big, travel widely, and read often. She taught me to follow my bliss and to live fully everyday. I gained so much inspiration and purpose from her. I am now on a super-clear life mission.

When I came back to California on June 1st, I was focused. I would build this new company in my mother’s name. And at it’s core purpose would be a social mission to make it much easier for human beings to connect with each other globally on mobile touch devices. It would be a B Corp from the start.

Anima would become our Co-Founder and Chief Connector/Chief Alchemist. I would be the co-founder and Chief Energy Officer (chief “executive” officer sounds so boringly corporate). We would all work our butts off for the summer and get an alpha to market by mid-August.

And so, after May 22nd a new mobile technology company was born with the help of my good friends at DLA Piper and the lovely Delaware Secretary of State. For the next few weeks, we’ve decided to keep the official company name a bit stealthy until we lock up our domain assets. Our temp domain is :-) . Yep, we’re that nerdy.

And Then There Were Five

The last week has been just amazing. I had a chance to meet President Obama on Wednesday during a roundtable in San Francisco with Marc Benioff and was excited to join on as a National Co-Chair of Technology for Obama (T4O) for the remainder of the campaign season.

Our team also grew from 2 to 5 members last week. Addison Hardy the preternaturally brilliant PHP/Python engineer arrived from North Carolina, Sara Luchian the Chief of Staff candidate joined us from Philadelphia after completing her Wharton MBA, and Marwan Roushdy the CSS Guru/Front End Designer flew in from Egypt.

What we’re building is rather technologically complex and requires an integration of left brain big data analytics with right brain creative aesthetics and so we really have no idea if we’ll succeed or not, but we’re going to have a damn good time trying. We’re not afraid to fail, as to us, the only way to fail is living out of integrity. We’re super focused and we’re putting it all on the line.

The team is living/working in a house in Noe Valley/Eureka Heights, SF in a house that I now own, by way of Googler Max Ventilla, and having lots of fun while taking the time to bring together great advisors for wonderful dinners and think deeply about the problem we’ve set out to solve. I’m learning how to make super healthy smoothies on our Vitamix 5200. And we’re watching Star Wars movies at night in The Temple (which is complete with a gong, multicolor LED lights, and sayings from the Dalai Lama).

Here are the house rules we’ve posted on the front door and a white board…

Above our whiteboard is the quote, “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Everything else is hackable.” Above the fishtank is “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.”

You can check out my Tumblr for more recent team photos.

We’re Hiring! Come Join Us!!

Now, we’re now looking for team members 6 through 8 to join over the next 2-4 weeks to join us on this crazy adventure with an ambitious, caring, competent, and semi-well capitalized crew.

We’re now accepting applications over the next 5 days for a senior PHP/Python engineer, a Data Scientist, an API Engineer, and CTO/Technical Co-Founder. We’re primarily looking for people from Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, and Salesforce with significant experience with scalability, but are open to applicants from anywhere. We’re also only looking for compassionate, caring, and highly competent people who want to make a difference in the world.

We’re centrally located in SF, paying above market salaries, offering early equity positions and the opportunity to work with the best technology, and promise an amazingly fun and meaningful summer. Come join us!

> Here’s some additional info on the technical job openings.

If you’d like to apply please send your CV to me at If you know someone who may wish to apply, I very much welcome introductions at that email address.

With so much love,

My TEDx Presentation – “Creating a Better World”

January 20, 2012

On December 10th, 2011 I gave a TEDx presentation in Raleigh on “Creating a Better World.” Here is the video.

And here are the slides from the presentation:

TEDx Ryan Allis – Optimism for the Next 40 Years of Human History

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