2018-07-19

Wedding in Vermont

This weekend I went to Vermont for a joyous reason: the wedding of a dear friend! It was my first trip to Vermont and it was a very quick turnaround but I had a really good time.



Friday I flew into Boston and picked up my rental car. Getting out of Boston was a traffic-ridden nightmare but, once I escaped, it was smooth sailing through New Hampshire all the way to East Burke, Vermont.

Although Boston traffic delayed my arrival, I still made it in time for the rehearsal dinner - and thank goodness for that! The Fijian side of the bride's family guided guests through a kava ceremony, in which we ground up kava root, mixed it with water, and drank it from coconut shells. I was exhausted from a day of travel but the kava - supposedly a sedative - actually perked me right up!

At the rehearsal dinner I also met Oliver, the fiancé of another dear friend of mine. They were both intending to come to the wedding but she, now seven months pregnant, was unable to make the trip all the way from Germany. As Oliver and I were both alone, I adopted him as my "wingman" for the
weekend. :-)

Saturday morning I went out seeking a trail run. Nearby Lake Willoughby is known as the Lake Lucerne of North America so I had to see it. Lake Willoughby sits at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, so I decided to do a quick trail run before taking a dip in the lake. The trail to Mt. Pisgah's south lookout (where there should be a gorgeous view of the entire lake) was less than two miles long so I figured it would be a half hour out and back.

Oh, how wrong I was! Vermont's mountains, it turns out, are quite a bit steeper than the gentle foothills to which I am accustomed so very quickly my trail run turned into a hike. Some parts became quite technical too such that I was actually scrabbling on all fours.

45 minutes later I finally reached the south lookout - which was completely enveloped in fog so there was no view at all! It was a great workout, though, and coming down was just about as hard as going up. After an hour and a half I made it back to my car - and no time for a dip in the lake as I needed to meet Oliver back at my hotel!

The entire time on the trail I kept passing people who were speaking French, which instigated two reactions from me: 1. why on Earth are so many French people in Vermont?? 2. My French must be getting really bad because I can barely understand them! It wasn't until I paused at the top (possibly causing bloodflow to return to my brain) that I realized that, duh, they weren't French; they were Canadian! We were only a half hour drive from the Canadian border.

My hotel, the Burke Mountain Resort, sits at the foot of a network of ski slopes. In recent years, however, there hasn't been much snow, so the area has pivoted to become a haven for mountain biking. Oliver met me at the hotel to hike up the slopes for some spectacular views. After my unexpectedly strenuous morning hike, though, I needed to refuel a bit first so we stopped by the hotel pub. Motivated by proximity to Canada, I tried poutine for the first time. I ordered a Vermont cheese board to boot, keeping the entire meal local[ish].

With full bellies we we set out onto the slopes. With no real plan we simply worked our way up. Sometimes we were on road, sometimes on forested single track trail, and sometimes out on grassy slopes; it was beautiful! An Ironman was being held that same day and my hat is off to the competitors; a normal Ironman is already impressive but running up and down those steep slopes (after so much swimming and biking) was positively insane!

Oliver and I stumbled our ways back down the slopes and hurriedly got ready for the wedding. I wore a bowtie for the first time in a non-formal setting, which was fun. The wedding was outdoors at the groom's family farm. It threatened to rain but never quite did so; accordingly, the weather was truly pleasant while we celebrated my dear friend and her new husband.

The ceremony was lovely, really "them," and the reception was amazing. Fresh, local oysters, mac n' cheese, a melt in your mouth beef rib, and excellent wines made for the perfect catalyst to have fun with many people I was meeting for the first time. Oliver and I were "old friends" by this point and
I bumped into a former colleague there too, but I spent most of my time meeting friends and family of the bride and groom. Everyone was really lovely (There was even a golden retriever named Max!) and I'm sorry I had to leave early.

Leave early I did, though, as I had an early wakeup call to drive back to Boston and catch the first flight back to RDU. As much fun as I was having in Vermont, I was quite keen to return to Katie and our baby.

My first experience in Vermont was a very positive one. It certainly lived up to its reputation as the Green Mountain State and I can't wait to return and enjoy more of its nature and hospitality!

2018-06-17

On Fatherhood on Father's Day

Today was my first Father's Day as the father of a living human child, a day of great joy and reflection. It began with a trail walk together as a family, continued with boot camp so I can try to stave off this dad bod, peaked with a Texas BBQ family brunch, and now it's about to wind down with Star Wars. I'm new to fatherhood, but so far I feel like we're doing it right!

Actually I'm not entirely new to fatherhood. In some ways I have felt like a father previously - ever since our first pregnancy several years ago. In this way, though, I felt like ultimate failure of a father. If you take one of a father's primary roles to be the protection of his offspring, I failed again and again and again. One might argue that there was nothing I could do about those pregnancy losses; I would both agree and respond that that feeling of impotence only exacerbated the feeling of failure as a father - and as a husband.

Now, with a healthy, beautiful child my relationship with my own fatherhood has changed. Fatherhood brings me joy and wonder. It brings me a new connection with my own dearly departed father that I share with him across space and time. It brings me a stronger bond with Katie, who is already establishing herself as such a strong, capable, tender mother.

Perhaps the greatest feeling fatherhood brings me today is gratitude. I'm so thankful to my child for, well, making me a father. And to Katie - without whom it wouldn't have been possible! And to our parents, family, and friends, who have all shaped me into the father that I am today.

I have been so incredibly blessed to have had excellent father figures in my life: uncles, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends - even my mom, who, as a single mother, was the best mom and dad a boy could hope for. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In my case, it has taken a village to raise a father!

So, on this Father's Day, I toast not just the biological fathers out there but all of those caring father figures who enrich the lives of kids like me - often without ever even signing up to do so!

Of the father figures I have been so fortunate to call my own, we lost a really good one last December. He will always be missed but his legacy endures in the outstanding father his own son has become and on the indelible mark he has left on me. So, a toast to him as well!

And a final toast: this one to all of the would-be fathers out there. As I mentioned in my last post, we know many, many people who are struggling with or have struggled with infertility. On a day honoring fathers, you guys may feel excluded. Whether you are still trying to become a father or whether you have made peace and moved on, I also honor you on this day - and I hope you will always remember that I'm with you.

So here's to you all: may the Force be with you . . . always!

2018-05-28

On Infertility, Loss, Life, and Love

As astute followers of my blog know, Memorial Day - and May 28th in particular - is a significant day for me. Although the holiday is intended for remembrance of those who died while serving in the US armed forces, it is also the day my father died and so, for the last 28 years, I have observed Memorial Day with somber reflection. I even blogged about it in 2008, 2010, and 2013.

This year's Memorial Day observance has even greater reason for gratitude and reflection: Katie and I recently had a baby. You might be surprised that I haven't been shouting about it from the highest mountains (which would be much more "in character" for me!) but we have avoided as much of the "pageantry" of both pregnancy and birth as we have been able to get away with. Perhaps Memorial Day is a good day to explain why.

Six years ago we started trying to have children. Many things in life have come naturally and easily to us but conceiving turned out not to be one of them. After two and a half years we sought out medical help. We were diagnosed with "unexplained infertility," one of the most useless terms I have ever encountered. It was amazing to me that we could put a human on the moon and cure myriad diseases but still had so much unexplained about one of the most basic human functions, reproduction.

At long last, though, we managed to conceive, and we were elated! It was just before the winter holidays so we shared the news with our closest family members. We spent long evenings discussing all our hopes and dreams for this new chapter - baby names, parenting philosophies, house rearrangement, necessary gear, etc., etc. Everything had changed for us. And then - abruptly - it hadn't.

Shortly before Christmas we lost the pregnancy. It was heartbreaking. I was astounded just how bonded you could become to a tiny little cluster of cells - no personality, just the promise of a new life. We had already hopped on board the train to our new future - and then we were kicked off. It was not our best Christmas.

We are resilient, though, so we got back on the horse and lost a second pregnancy. And a third. And a fourth. Gradually the feelings changed from the acute stab of loss to a mounting fear that we may actually never be able to have children - and a feeling of impotence to do anything about it.

The irony was that we didn't want kids desperately. We have some friends for whom it was the be-all end-all desire and that just wasn't us. But it was something that we wanted, and our repeated failure to achieve it - especially in light of our peers who seemed to be bursting with fertility - just felt sooooo . . . disappointing.

In many ways my career in startup entrepreneurship had prepared me for this - repeated failures until you finally hit it big. I was more worried about Katie, who, no matter how much support she had from me, was still the one to bear all of the physiological consequences of both pregnancy and miscarriage. Katie proved to be strong, though, and resilient in the face of adversity. Although I wouldn't choose to have had the experience we had, it certainly brought us closer together.

At first we didn't share our struggle out of feelings of shame and failure. Eventually we opened up about it to some of our closest family and friends, though, and that made all the difference. Some of them (Surprisingly many!) shared their own experiences of infertility and loss. Some shared advice. Some simply shared compassion and support. It was exactly what we needed and we were/are eternally grateful for it. We felt less alone, which made it easier to persevere.

And now, having been through the dark times, our baby's arrival brings us all the more light. Rather than just the light of joy, though, there is the light of gratitude and humility as well. We don't refrain from tooting the horn of our baby's arrival because our joy is muted (And our joy for others who welcome new children into the world is no less in magnitude.) but rather out of recognition of our journey.

Now each Memorial Day we don't just honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. And we don't just remember my father on the day of his death. We also now remember our four little babies who didn't make it. And we remember those of all of our friends who have also experienced such loss.

We especially hold in our hearts all those of you who continue to struggle with infertility and miscarriage. Now that we have "succeeded," we haven't "graduated" from your tribe. Our journey has left an indelible mark on us and we will always be one of you. Please let us pay forward the overwhelming love and support we received along the way. We will always be here for you - on Memorial Day and every day.

2018-04-16

Austin BBQ Tour

Katie had a conference in Austin and I had customers, vendors, and investors to visit there so we coordinated our trip together. Of course I also took the opportunity to indulge in a little Texas BBQ while I was in town.

North Carolina has excellent BBQ but it is pretty limited to whole hog pulled pork - and the ribs are pretty good too. However, when you see brisket on an NC BBQ menu, run the other way. It is often grayish and tough like pot roast and invariably lacks the spicy bark, smoke ring, and fall-apart-on-your-fork/melt-in-your-mouth-ness that I associate with the best beef BBQ in TX.

Texas BBQ itself is experiencing something of a renaissance. 10 years ago, if you wanted the best of the best, you had to make a pilgrimage out to small country towns. Then Franklin BBQ set up shop in Austin and the bar for craft BBQ inside the city limits of major metro areas was forever raised. Many others followed suit - not just in Austin but in other big TX cities as well. It's a great time to be alive if you love beef BBQ!

I hit five BBQ joints in 48 hours and I had immense help from Packy Saunders in prioritizing/planning my tour. If you like food, you should be following Packy on Instagram.

1. Micklethwait Craft Meats
We went straight from the airport to Micklethwait, arriving ~noon. Micklethwait is a food truck with a pretty solid expanded setup, including a separate smoker trailer and shaded seating. I dragged a few of Katie's colleagues with me such that we could try almost the entire menu:
From front to back:

  • beef rib (good flavor but some tough parts)
  • pulled pork (good)
  • pulled lamb (excellent)
  • brisket (very good)
  • lemon poppy cole slaw (good)
  • potato salad (good)
  • carrot cake whoopie pie (very good) - I think this was provided by I Knead That.
  • brisket frito pie (excellent)
  • TexCzech sausage (good)
  • pork spare ribs (good)
  • barbacoa (meh, kind of dry/tough)
  • jalapeno cheese grits (good)
  • beans (good)
Everything was a little saltier than it needed to be but the flavor was good. The hands down winner was the brisket frito pie, although the pulled lamb was a close second. By the time we left (~13:00), they were running out of the non-staples - so I'm glad we got the lamb when we did!

After a short run along the lake to try to combat all the meat carnage, I headed to Terry Black's by myself. 
From front to back:
  • peach cobbler (good)
  • lean brisket (meh, pretty dry)
  • moist brisket (good)
  • mac n' cheese (ok)
  • banana pudding (excellent)
Combining the brisket with the mac n' cheese was a winner but the banana pudding was definitely the standout. There was nothing exceptional about Terry Black's BBQ, but A. I was there near closing and B. I only tried the brisket so I will reserve judgment until I've had a chance to try more.

The weather was unseasonably cool so I began the next day with a long run around the lake - just what I needed to make room for more BBQ! Valentina's is pretty far south (~20 minute drive) and is another food truck with shaded seating. ~10AM there was no line. They had both BBQ and Tex Mex on the menu but my pro tip from Packy was to stick to the breakfast tacos.

Left to right:
  • Smoked brisket taco with salsa and guacamole (very good)
  • The Real Deal Holyfield with brisket, bacon, fried egg, refried beans, potatoes, and salsa (AMAZEBALLS)
Valentina's did not let me down; the Real Deal alone was worth the price of admission. I can't judge how good their BBQ is on its own but the flavor combination in that Real Deal was a knockout
!

After a day of business meetings, I took another 20-minute drive south to this food truck. I arrived right at 5 PM (when their dinner menu opens up) and there was no line. With a pint of Yellow Rose from the next door bar, it was a hell of a way to unwind after a packed day.
  • Mac n' cheese stuffed quail with kimchi and mustard greens (good - neither the mac nor the quail is that exceptional by itself but using a smoked bird as a utensil for conveying mac n' cheese to my mouth is a big winner, plus points for the accouterments)
  • Brisket cookie (very good - they use brisket drippings to give it a little smoke and salt and I wouldn't have minded a little more)
  • L&L burger (not pictured, excellent - brisket burger with cheese, pickles, onions, and sauce)
The menu here was less traditional but everything I had was very good. I love, love, LOVE that they make their BBQ sauce with beets. I don't blame the other BBQ joints for mass producing their sauces with bad ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup but I do strongly prefer this approach.

After hearing about Franklin for years I finally decided to take the plunge. I woke up early, went for a preemptive strike run, and then arrived at Franklin around 8 AM. They offer chairs to the first 30 or so people in line, which made the wait much easier. They also very considerately came out and asked each of us for our intended orders so they could warn people farther back if they might run out of some meats. They opened their doors at 10:59 but, even at #15 in line, I didn't reach the counter to order until ~11:30.
Front to back:
  • ribs (excellent, truly the surprise meat)
  • brisket (very good)
  • turkey (very good for turkey - still not as good as anything else there)
  • sausage (good)
  • pulled pork (very good)
  • Tipsy Texan (AMAZEBALLS - chopped brisket, sliced sausage, coleslaw, pickles, and onions)
  • banana bourbon tart (not pictured, good - very boozy!)
I didn't find any of Franklin's meats to be markedly better than those of the other top places in Austin. What makes Franklin special is really the experience. Sitting around with others "of your tribe" who are excited enough for good BBQ to devote an entire morning to it is something akin to tailgating. I made some fast friends in that line and the wait was over before I knew it. Franklin has the operation down to a science and they are very accommodating, opening up their bathrooms and selling beer long before their 11:00 open time. 

After much reflection, these are the top things I had during my whirlwind Austin BBQ tour:
  1. Real Deal Holyfield at Valentina's
  2. Tipsy Texan at Franklin
  3. L & L Burger at LeRoy and Lewis
  4. Brisket Frito Pie at Micklethwait
Noticing a pattern here? None of these are individual cuts of meat; they're all combos in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think the best Houston BBQ joints are on par with the best of Austin when it comes to individual cuts of meat (e.g. the beef rib at Killen's). Austin BBQ is distinguishing itself at the moment through inventive flavor combinations and, as much as I love brisket, ribs, and sausage by themselves, these innovative combos are really refreshing.

What do you think? Have I got the right of it or missed the point entirely? Regardless, after all this coverage of smokey, salty meat, let me leave you with a very boozey Guinness ice cream cookie sandwich from Amy's to cleanse your palate:

2018-03-10

Startup Fundraising: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

One year ago today, Smart Office Energy Solutions closed a $1.3M angel round of funding. We've accomplished a great deal since then - expanded the team, finished gen-1 product development, obtained all the requisite certifications for our hardware, and built a large sales pipeline - but I find anniversaries to be a good time to pause and reflect.

This is a presentation on startup fundraising I gave a few days ago to entrepreneurship students at the University of Wyoming. In it, I review the pros and cons of several different startup fundraising strategies, using Smart OES and my previous startups as specific case studies.



Toward the end of the presentation, I take a deep dive into Smart OES's three rounds. The quantitative analysis provides some interesting insights:

  • We had a 0% success rate trying to raise funds from people who were not part of our networks. 100% of our investment came from people we knew or people to whom we were introduced.
  • Former colleagues invested the most (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) in my venture. The trust developed by working with or for someone is a real asset in early-stage fundraising.
  • A similar trust clearly is formed in the academic setting as well because a good deal of our investment came through my school networks. Interestingly, Rice contacts invested more (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) than did IMD contacts.
  • Second-degree contacts became much more likely to invest over time. It is helpful, therefore, for startup founders to engage "smart" money (in this case, investors with connections to other investors) early on.
  • Similarly, the value of repeat investors increased over time, demonstrating the value of engaging investors with the capacity to follow on.
  • Geographically, investors in Texas out-invested investors in Switzerland 2:1. However, using my LinkedIn network size (1,100 contacts in Texas; 250 contacts in Switzerland) as a denominator, the Swiss outperformed the Texans on a per capita basis. Most disappointingly, we didn't raise a penny from North Carolina (where I have 300 contacts!) - and not for lack of trying.
  • Unsurprisingly phone calls and in-person meetings were more effective than emailing or messaging on social networks in leading to investment.
We've just opened up a new funding round (with more than 25% already committed by existing investors!) so we're putting these learnings into practice to be better/smarter/faster this time around.

2018-03-02

Review: The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! The Dark Tower series really blew me away. I'm not a fan of the horror genre so I have never read any Stephen King novels before. Of course, as a fan of movie adaptations of his non-horror works, I have long known that he does stray from the genre occasionally but I was never terribly motivated to give him a try.

However, The Dark Tower kept showing up on lists of top FANTASY books, and that is a genre that I truly love. Last year, in preparation for the [bad] Dark Tower movie, I decided to give the first Dark Tower novel a try and - BAM - I was hooked!

From the opening lines of the novel, King uses evocative language to captivate the reader. He creates rich, complex characters and an interesting, immersive world that leaves the reader wanting to know more about it - and about how it came to be. With eight novels to date and probably more to come (King has claimed to have been done with the series multiple times before but it keeps calling to him.), the series scratches that itch satisfyingly.

Interestingly, different novels take on very different tones. Some might be considered dark western fantasy; some might be considered time travel mystery; some might be considered dystopian future sci fi. They provide substantial variety - but always with the same core of well developed characters, so there is a mix of familiarity and novelty.

The series began as a few short stories that were kind of mashed up into a novel. Then King had an idea for a follow-on novel. Then another. Then a prequel. Then a three-novel meta-series that would tie the Dark Tower into all of his other works. Then another prequel. Organically The Dark Tower has grown into his magnum opus over the course of more than four decades.

In some ways I think King's reach exceeds his grasp and he stretches a little too far trying to massage tie-ins of his other works into the later books in this series but, still, I found every book to be very interesting without a single disappointing entry.

It's hard for me to qualify a recommendation for this series with "if you like XYZ genre" because the series is so broad and expansive. So, let me leave my recommendation as such: I see now what the big deal is about Stephen King.

View all my reviews

2018-03-01

2018 Winter Olympics Wrap-Up

Another Olympics has come and gone so it is once again time to take a look at who "won" the Games by several different metrics. Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I once again tracked not just the medal counts but also economic and demographic metrics for each country - you can see my full spreadsheet here.



Norway was the clear victor in medal scores, winning in every category: golds, silvers, bronzes, total medals, and weighted medal score. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
123 - Norway
107 - Germany
89   - Canada
75   - USA
64   - Netherlands
Norway went from a weighted medal count of 75 in 2010 to 80 in 2014 to explode this year - a true success story! Meanwhile Russia has gone the opposite direction, from 91 (#1) four years ago to 37 (#12) this year. Russia was technically banned from competition this year for doping . . . and yet three Russian athletes competing as individuals were caught for doping at this year's games anyway!

Because Norway is so small, it crushed the competition even (especially!) when normalized by population. The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
23.43 - Norway
5.60   - Switzerland
5.49   - Sweden
4.59   - Austria
3.77   - Netherlands

These countries are all pretty affluent, though, so how do things change if we normalize instead by GDP? Not much! The top performers by weighted medal score per $B GDP (PPP) were:
0.33 - Norway
0.14 - Liechtenstein
0.10 - Sweden
0.09 - Austria
0.09 - Switzerland

We can mix up the leaderboard a little bit if we normalize by GDP per capita. The top performers by weighted medal score per $1,000 GDP per capita were:
2.12 - Germany
1.84 - Canada
1.71 - Norway
1.51 - China
1.35 - Olympic Athletes from Russia

Many congratulations to Norway, a small country that absolutely crushed much larger and richer countries than itself at this year's Olympics - well done! Keep up the good work and we'll hope to give you more competition in four years!