death of a tech salesman

We sought a special person to sell product for our company. It’s not easy to find someone who’s great at selling a highly technical product to smart engineers, who usually understand their own problems much better than the people selling to them. It takes unusual resilience, affability, humility and persistence.

We were lucky to find Bijan Dhanani. He had made a name for himself in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, working at several local startups, and becoming widely known and loved for his community projects and musical talents. Coming to Silicon Valley was a dream come true for him, and he fit right into our little band of colleagues on our startup adventure. In his first few weeks, he learned our product like a pro, already displaying the knowledge and charm required for success. At the end of his fourth week, he died, just 30 years old.

There are no lessons in his death. It was the hottest day on record in San Francisco. He had just moved into his new apartment in Mission Dolores. In my mind’s eye, I see him moving the last piece of furniture into place, surveying his new space with a deep sense of satisfaction, thinking about his new situation with sunny optimism, excited about the future ahead. And then he lay down to rest, never to get up again.

This is my nineteenth year working in tech in Silicon Valley. There are no new stories, this isn’t the first time that a young colleague of limitless potential has passed too early from this earth. The universe is not short of reminders that life is precious, time is limited, you must hold your loved ones close while you can.

There are no new lessons, only reminders. The important lessons are so basic, so few, so oft repeated, that no one can fail to hear them. Value your time. Optimize for love and friendship, live with gratitude and compassion. It seems so simple, but if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get the worst, most stark reminder of just how hard it can be. Memento mori.

greatness and lateness

The late, great Bill Campbell passed away this week, and there is no shortage of encomia from the technorati about him. He was the greatest coach in Silicon Valley, and the list of leaders that have paid tributes is appropriately star-studded. Some of the most successful people in the business world have benefitted from his wise counsel and friendship. It’s not hard to find stories of some pearl of advice that Bill gave to change the direction of a company, or even a life. I’d like to share a story that’s different, though no less illustrative of his greatness, because it’s a story of what happens when you don’t listen to Bill Campbell.

Back when Linden Lab was one of the most hyped companies in the world, in the interregnum between Google and Facebook, we had typical growing pains that were no less painful for being typical. Through the extraordinary pleading of one of our board members, we had the good fortune to receive some time from Bill Campbell. It was a tough time to get his time. He’d recently found out that his close friend was suffering from a terminal disease, and he knew that supporting his friend and his friend’s family would soon becoming an all-consuming task. He could not agree to a team-wide mentoring relationship. But even in the face of this tragedy and his many other commitments, he agreed to spend some one-on-one time with our CEO in several sessions, and just one round of discussions through the rest of the exec team.

I was very excited when my turn came, having known not only of The Coach’s legendary reputation, but having heard and seen his sharp advice to our CEO implemented on a few occasions in our company already. We sat down in a fishbowl conference room, centrally located on the company’s main floor, with a view out across the desks on an otherwise normal day. As I began responding to his initial questions about my background and context, I saw his attention drawn sharply away to the window.

In just a few seconds of observation, he saw something he didn’t like outside the conference room. “Do you see that?” he asked me. Yes I did, I responded, I knew exactly what he was talking about. “What’s it about?” he probed. I gave my best explanation, no doubt biased, certainly incomplete, filled with my caveats and allowances for things that I perhaps did not understand completely. “Nonsense,” he said, “Your job is to take care of that situation. Do you think this company is going to make or break on the new markets you’re after, on the business deals you’re trying to swing? No. You are here for that, no one else on the team is going to do it. Fix it. That is your most important job.”

I’m sorry I’m being vague about the details of the problem that Bill saw. The details don’t matter in this particular telling of the story. What matters is how quickly Bill could see a critical problem in barely more than a glance, how few questions he had to ask to understand the nature of the problem, how firmly he could direct action where it was needed, how incisively he could assess character and roles on a team. That he could do all this in seconds was simply stunning.

The sad, though hopefully instructive, remainder of the story is how poorly I executed on his insight. Fixing the problem immediately would require an extreme action that would disrupt the company in a sudden and unwelcome manner. I thought that the safer course of action was to confine the problem to a tight but explosive space, allowing it to self-destruct in a formidable container, like a bomb going off under a fortified blast dome. In retrospect, of course this was the wrong choice. The problem lingered longer than it should have, was not completely isolated or contained, and rather than have an explosion in the air that the winds could blow away, I had poison in the ground that was now part and parcel with the soil on which the company was built.

I wish we’d had more time than we got with Bill, I don’t think I would have handled things the same way with just a little bit more counsel. It was not the difference in our company’s success or failure, but it was the best advice for the moment and for the team in place. The lesson, I suppose, if there must be a lesson here, is that when you are fortunate enough to access the wisdom of the great, act on it decisively before it’s too late.

dan the man

The last time I saw Dan Fredinburg, he was heads-down in a tray of food at the cafeteria. I tapped him on the back as I passed by and mumbled some routine hello. A reflexive “Hey we should catch up” caught in my throat when I saw his haggard stare and the robotic shoveling of food into his mouth. He wasn’t really there, and that was very unlike Dan, who was usually so present, so effervescent with pleasure at seeing people and connecting with them in the moment.

I thought I understood: he was about to leave on his second attempt to summit Everest. The first attempt had ended in the most lives lost in a climbing accident on the mountain, when sixteen sherpas died in an avalanche that befell a commercial expedition in April 2014. Dan was acutely aware of the difference in risks for sherpas and expedition customers, and I think he’d been haunted by his contribution to the burden carried by the men who had died trying to help him achieve a dream. I saw the difference in his training this time around, when I’d occasionally spot him in the gym – he moved the heavy weights with a serious sense of purpose, dedicated to raising himself to an even higher level of fitness, without the jokey repartee that we had shared during his training the previous year. This time the journey was about more than just getting to the top because it’s there, more than making the world’s highest StreetView.

Dan died in an avalanche on Everest last Saturday, triggered by the powerful earthquake that now has a death toll of over 4000 people. The cynical will ask why anyone should remark on just one death among these thousands, just the death of a rich, powerful, famous playboy.

Dan wasn’t rich in money. Of course anyone with a good job in Silicon Valley may have wealth in comparison to much of the less fortunate world, but Dan wasn’t a jackpot entrepreneur flaunting his success with expensive hobbies. Instead he was rich in spirit, a wealth far beyond the norm even though it’s accessible to all. He was rich in vision, seeing a way to make his job into his passion, pursuing personal enrichment that’s not about money at all.

Dan wasn’t powerful in the org chart. A talent like Dan could never be a mere cog in a giant machine, but he wasn’t an executive commanding thousands of peons to do his bidding. Instead he was powerful in his presence, in his sheer joy at living, in the force of his will to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

Dan wasn’t famous in the media. He happened to date an actress, but he never saw people as what they did for a living; he responded only to who they are inside. The memory of Dan will live like a star in all who knew him, surviving well beyond the transitory and dull illumination of the names and faces of the merely famous.

Pablo Neruda often told an anecdote about a hole in the fence of his childhood backyard. It was just a hole in a fence, a tiny view into the landscape beyond, until one day there suddenly appeared a boy’s hand. When he got closer to the fence the hand had disappeared, but in its place was a gift of a marvelous little toy, and this toy touched his heart so much that he left his own in return. The chance view, the momentary and partial encounter with another emerging spirit, the exchange of common but magical gifts – the great poet marks this as the beginning of his understanding that there is a bond between strangers that is greater in its way than the bond between intimates.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together… This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.

People say “I’m sorry for your loss” when they hear that someone you know has died. It was really something to know Dan, but I’m not among his closest friends, family and loved ones, so I cannot truly grieve as they do, I have not lost as they have. For me, Dan was a gift spotted through a small hole in the fence that separates us from each other as we wander through our own life paths. I came close enough to see the joy he made of life, and to understand that we are united by something deep and indestructible inside of all of us. I’m grateful for the gift, lucky to have it, and determined to give it to all who pass by and see that these fences are truly no barrier at all.

great jobs

The death of Steve Jobs raises and answers the question that haunts the psyches of ambitious entrepreneurs everywhere: “Was it worth it?”

Praise follows death like the glowing debris that trails a comet, and the writing in the sky says that Jobs was the greatest CEO ever. A few muted voices remember that he was famously harsh to work with, but this is universally regarded as an entirely justified mania for perfection. Considering his accomplishments, it seems almost irrelevant that he denied the obligations of paternity for one child, and consciously decided that his children should know him through biography rather than time spent with him, even – or especially – in the final stretch towards death, when the remaining time must be remorselessly allotted like oxygen in a sealed room.

This isn’t criticism of a great man. It’s a reminder that many of us would willingly make the same choices, were such greatness within our reach.

We say it’s not so, and try to believe it. We encourage each other to remember family, remember health, remember that a life of striving includes the quest to achieve a full and humane life through our work. But the life of Jobs is the story of his jobs, of his one true job: making a dent in the universe through the creation of products that become a part of our lives. For his success in that, we forgive and excuse his personality defects. We cannot blame a man for failing to uphold principles that we would throw aside ourselves if only we could be assured that the universe was malleable to our touch.

Saying that “you are not your job” is a comfort; it alleviates the cognitive dissonance between your self-image and the productive economic output you contribute to the world. The lessons of Steve Jobs deny that comfort; his strongest exhortations insist that you are all about the things you make for the world – not for yourself, not for your hobbies or leisure, not even for your family and certainly not your friends if you have any. You have to do great work, never settle, remember that each day could be your last, don’t waste time living someone else’s life.

There is no obligation to community, family or friendship in these words – though strangely, there is an overwhelming commitment to society in the desire to dent the universe, for this is not a universe of cold cosmological phenomena, it’s a universe of people, and his ambition is all about changing how people live. For Jobs, if this ambition involved sacrifices of a more universal personal nature, there is no question that it was worth it. It was worth it for him, and his efforts were certainly worth it for us.

It’s touching to see the determination with which Jobs’ sayings are repeated in the wake of his death. But the message of his most appealing words isn’t quite the message of his life. He told us to follow our hearts, to trust our intuitions, to ask ourselves if our plan for this day is how we’d want to spend our last. But those are not goals, they are only beautiful means to an uncompromising end. The goal of Jobs was to be insanely great in a world-changing way. That’s the hard part of the message to understand. All of us can hope to understand what is in our own hearts, and can hope to have the courage to follow it. Almost no one alive has a realistic ambition to change the world – what many of us think of as world changing is merely interesting, hopefully entertaining, and possibly enriching.

r.i.p. craig johnson

Craig Johnson passed away this weekend – in the peak of his career, he was one of the great startup company advisors of Silicon Valley.  In the late ’90s he left legal giant Wilson Sonsini to form “a new kind of law firm” that supplied both legal necessities and business advice to growing startups.

I joined Craig’s firm in Menlo Park a few years after beginning my career in New York.  In the large Manhattan firms, the partners have big offices with spectacular views of the city.  Craig opened Venture Law Group in a modest suburban office park, and he liked to change his own office location from time to time, to dispel the office politics around a physical locus of power.  At one point soon after I joined, he occupied the small office right next to mine, making me a very lucky neophyte to Silicon Valley.  He was always kind and generous with his time and advice.  There are two bits of his wisdom that I particularly remember:

Timing and sequence are as critical as any other factors in building a successful venture. People tend to obsess over having the right idea, and building the right pieces to pursue those ideas.  And undoubtedly, it matters greatly that you pursue the right idea, building the right pieces, with the right people.  But all of those things can be right, and you can still fail if you start at the wrong time.  And more subtly, even being in the right time is not enough – you have to do things in the right order.  Attention to timing and sequence requires extraordinary strategic focus and discipline.

You are an undiversifiable piece of human capital.  This advice grows out of the notion that we are all investors in our own careers.  And one of the first principles of good investment management is portfolio diversification – by distributing your investment across asset classes with varying risk profiles, you can maximize your return while minimizing overall risk.  But as a human being with one life, you have a limited number of opportunities to diversify your career portfolio.  Life is about risk in a deeper way than rational investments.

Craig inspired us with his humility and gentle wisdom.  He carried his great experience lightly, with a twinkle in his eye at the chance to share a new thought with you.  Most of all, I’ll remember the boyish enthusiasm he always had for helping new ideas become realities.  Rest in peace, Craig Johnson.