Serving as a Cornell Tech Fellow

I recently accepted a role as a Cornell Tech Fellow at the new campus on Roosevelt Island, which officially opened last week. I’m working under the direction of Dan Huttenlocher, the dean and leader of Cornell Tech. I have a desk there and be on campus a day or so a week helping Dan with a variety of initiatives as he builds and scales this important new institution (which is very much a entrepreneurial startup).

Cornell Tech is the outcome of the kind of public/private partnerships with world-changing ambition that reflect the civic character of New York City so well. I’ve always been fascinated with how things work and I’m excited to see a new world class campus develop up close from day one. The launch of the campus is a huge moment for New York City and something that will impact generations.

I first met Dan in 2011 when we gave Cornell space to do an alumni event at Etsy. At that time, there was a competition amongst top universities around the world to occupy a new tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell were among the 18 contenders. Cornell won the bid with Dan as the leader and six years later (after a few years in Google-provided quarters in Chelsea), the campus is fully operational. I’ve been involved in various ways with Cornell Tech for a few years now, giving a welcome talk to the incoming classes the past two years and as a guest in the Conversations in the Studio series. Every time I have talked with students there, I feel more optimistic about the future of the world. The future is in good hands at Cornell Tech.

I’m excited to be a small part of it. Congratulations to everyone who had a role in launching the new campus, particularly Dan!

Select media coverage

Becoming an advisor to Bandcamp

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote that I wasn’t making any significant commitments until the end of 2017, including advisory roles. Well, I should have put an asterisk on that. Earlier this week, I signed up as an advisor to Bandcamp and I couldn’t be more excited about it. 

This formal advisory role happened really organically. I’ve been talking with the Bandcamp team informally for years and have always loved what they are doing and how they are doing it. Way back in the summer of 2010, I had lunch with Ethan Diamond and Shawn Grunberger, the co-founders of Bandcamp, and we compared notes on a lot of topics (I was CTO at Etsy then). Over the years, we’ve kept in touch. I just happened to have a lunch set up with Ethan and Josh Kim (Bandcamp COO) the week of the Etsy announcement and it was really fun. They asked me to be an advisor and I couldn’t resist getting involved. (Note: this doesn’t mean I’m looking more generally for other opportunities. Bandcamp and their focus on music just uniquely fits into how I want to be spending my time.)

Here are just a few of the things I love about Bandcamp:

1. The music

I love music and particularly love the independent music ecosystem and its constituent parts: the bands, the labels, the venues, college radio, music writers, and platforms like Bandcamp. Way back in the day, I ran the Duke Coffeehouse (more of that story here) and briefly had a show on WXDU. I have spent a lot of time in my life nerding out with friends on the aesthetics and taste of various indie labels and consuming vast quantities of music writing. I’ve long had a habit of throwing a handful of 33 ⅓ books into my carry on bag (the best book series of all time and the perfect form factor for travel — be sure to check out if you love music).

Back to the music: today I’m very much enjoying Agent blå’s self-titled record, which is the Bandcamp Daily “album of the day.” (more on Bandcamp’s awesome editorial below). This is great writing: “Skörvald, Gustavsson, and Alatalo used to play Joy Division covers together at local open mics, and Agent blå manages to capture all of that group’s darkness with none of the nihilism.” For people who’ve been looking for Joy Division without the nihilism or just about any other bands that operate outside of the Music Industry Industrial Complex, Bandcamp delivers.

2. The vision

It’s not just the music, it’s the vision and philosophy behind the company. From their about page: “Bandcamp makes it easy for fans to directly connect with and support the artists they love. We treat music as art, not content, and we tie the success of our business to the success of the artists who we serve.” Yes!

3. Artist-friendly model

The ethos is expressed in Bandcamp’s Fair Trade Music Policy: “Bandcamp believes that music is an indispensable part of culture, and for that culture to thrive, artists must be compensated fairly and transparently for their work.” But it’s not just an aspiration. The economics are also completely transparent and artist-friendly. Bandcamp’s share is 15% on digital items, and 10% on physical goods plus payment processing fees. Everything else goes to the the artist, usually 80-85%, and they pay out daily. This is how you build a “fair, sustainable music economy” (as the policy states). That’s awesome and no one else is doing it like Bandcamp.

4. Sustainable long-term operating model coupled with founder control

Bandcamp was founded in 2008 and has been profitable since 2012. They haven’t taken much outside money and maintain full control of the company.**

5. Excellent editorial.

I love great music writing and the team at Bandcamp clearly does, too. They hired a top-notch editorial staff and launched Bandcamp Daily about a year ago (see launch post for more on the vision). My favorite feature right now is “Better Know a College Radio Station.” Reading Bandcamp Daily feels like hanging out in a good neighborhood record store or having a conversation with a friend who’s hanging out with you at 2am at the college radio station helping you pick the next track you’re going to play.

I’m looking forward to helping the Bandcamp team out in any way they find my help useful — should be very fun!

** (elaborating on point #4 above) I’ll probably write more about this at some point, but I learned a lot about financing, ownership structure, and control over my tenure at Etsy. When I joined Etsy as CTO way back in 2008, the intention to be a public company had been stated months earlier (“Our goal is for Etsy to be an independent, publicly traded company.”) We didn’t go public until 2015, but five rounds of venture financing even before I stepped up to CEO in 2011 were very clear steps along that path. Nothing wrong with that — it’s the way things work when you take venture money, unless you want to sell the company — but that’s a particular path and Bandcamp has set itself up to go down a different road and that’s really interesting.

What’s next?

Update 9/21/2017 (original post from 05/15/2017 below): Since I posted this originally about four months ago, a lot has happened. Almost no one who was in my position as a CEO ever writes openly about life after a big, difficult change. From the very beginning, such changes are typically slathered in the conventional PR sheen of “spending more time with my family” and “seeking new opportunities.” I’ve always hated that, which is why when I left Etsy, I personally insisted on the release saying what happened. As they say, “it is what it is” and I had a great run over close to a decade. I mention how I handled my departure here months later because looking back that was an important first step in doing my best to live the rest of my life with no bullshit and no illusions. Life is really too short to live that way.

Being very public about my intentions back in May gave me the space to proactively fine-tune how I want to spend my time instead of immediately filling my days with random meetings. It forced me to sit and think about what I wanted to be rather than filling my life with activity and falling prey to others’ expectations of what I should be. Since then, I’ve had a great summer spending undistracted time with my family and friends. I’ve gotten to know my six year old son in a very deep way and there’s no better gift in life than that. I’ve spent a lot of time writing, reflecting on successes and mistakes, advising/coaching a handful of people (going deep in an unhurried way, not just “let’s have coffee on X topic”), and generally just being a friend to people I care about (including myself).

I’ve been working harder than ever, but on things that matter a lot to me that may not matter that much (if any) to other people. I’ve said “no” to just about everything that people have sent my way (which turns out to be something that Warren Buffett recommends). My time away so far has been brief by comparison, but this Rolling Stone interview with Patti Smith after sixteen years out of the public eye really resonates with me:

Q: As far as your fans and the music business were concerned, you literally disappeared during the 1980s. How did you and Fred [her husband] spend those missing years?

A: That was a great period for me. Until Jackson had to go to school, Fred and I spent a lot of time traveling through America, living in cheap motels by the sea. We’d get a little motel with a kitchenette, get a monthly rate. Fred would find a little airport and get pilot lessons. He studied aviation; I’d write and take care of Jackson. I had a typewriter and a couple of books. It was a simple, nomadic, sparse life.

Q: Was there a period of adjustment for you, going from rock & roll stardom to almost complete anonymity?

A: Only in terms of missing the camaraderie of my band [I certainly identify with this. -CD]. And I certainly missed New York City. I missed the bookstores; I missed the warmth of the city. I’ve always found New York City extremely warm and loving.

But I was actually living a beautiful life. I often spent my days with my notebooks, watching Jackson gather shells or make a sand castle. Then we’d come back to the motel. Jackson would be asleep, and Fred and I would talk about how things went with his piloting and what I was working on.

Because people don’t see you or see what you’re doing doesn’t mean you don’t exist. When Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I spent the end of the ’60s in Brooklyn working on our art and poetry, no one knew who we were. Nobody knew our names. But we worked like demons. And no one really cared about Fred and I during the ’80s. But our self-concept had to come from the work we were doing, from our communication, not from outside sources.

That’s the spirit of how I’ve been living. I’m doing what truly excites me (see my post about Bandcamp and my post about Cornell Tech) and with very few exceptions keeping my calendar free and clear. I’m keeping that as a permanent practice. Now that I’ve got a basic life rhythm worked out, I’m glad to entertain opportunities that are really special and deliver a clearly positive societal impact.  This would include boards (non-profit, for-profit, NGO), advisory roles, and investment opportunities with clear positive social impact. I’m not interested in “all in” full-time roles right now. Once I’m in something, I give it everything and more. “All in” has always meant 150% commitment and I’m not interested in that kind of life right now.

More generally, I’m troubled about what is happening in our country and world today and want to spend my energies on things that help put us all on a better track. I’m doing some things quietly but am always open to new ideas and approaches. If there’s something you’re working on in that spirit and you think I could be helpful, email me at hello at chaddickerson.com. I’m continuing to keep my bar for engagement very high, so send as much detail up front about what you’re working on and how you think I might be helpful. There are lots of challenges in the world today, but I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can address them.


Original post 05/15/2017: Since the announcement on May 2 that I was stepping down as CEO of Etsy (official release), I’ve gotten so many kind notes and emails over the past couple of weeks from all the amazing people I’ve had the honor to work with over the course of my time at Etsy and well before that. I’ve been responding to all of those and enjoying it immensely. Anyone who is wondering how to get in touch with me, you can email me at hello@chaddickerson.com.

People keep asking me, “what’s next?” My only two commitments are that:

  1. I’m staying in NYC, Brooklyn specifically. I love it here. It’s the greatest city in the world!
  2. I’m not making commitments of any kind through the end of 2017. That includes:
  • Job opportunities
  • Board seats
  • Advisory roles
  • Speaking gigs
  • Coffees / lunches / dinners far in advance. I’m *really* serious about not jamming up my calendar with future engagements. Feel free to call/text/email a couple of days before or the day of.

Being the CEO of Etsy for nearly six years and CTO for three years before that during a period of massive growth was completely all-consuming and a 24/7/365 job. I loved it but look forward to days that are open to spontaneity — ones that aren’t scheduled to the brim from morning until night.

I plan to be very busy, though. Aside from some travel and time with family, I’m going full maker’s schedule and plan to focus my energies on a couple of creative pursuits: writing and music. I loved serving creative people in my job at Etsy and am grateful to all sellers around the world for giving me that opportunity. Now I look forward to being on the creative side myself. I have some exciting ideas and it will be fun to see where they lead.

Stay tuned.

Chad guitar 2013

Words of advice to inside sales people prospecting busy CEOs

If you’re an executive at a company and are in any way accessible, you’re on the receiving end of dozens of email pitches for products and services every week. Most of these come from what are known as “inside sales” people, i.e. sales people who start at the top of the funnel to find qualified leads for the company. They tend to cast their nets really wide and send lots of emails and make lots of phone calls.

Here’s one pitch I got recently:

Hi Chad,

I’ve reached out several times to discuss your [type of software service] initiatives for 2013.

If you have just been busy, and this is something you would like to pursue, I am happy to set some time up based on your availability.
Otherwise I will reach out again in a few months.

Let me know

This particular inside sales person was unusually persistent (this had to be the 5th or 6th email with no new information, just asking for time), and he showed many of the same ineffective patterns that I’ve seen for years. I decided to write him back with some advice. I’m publishing my response on the hope that it will help salespeople produce better pitches (which will thereby reduce the number since they will have to be more thoughtful), and saving that, maybe my post will provide some cathartic commiseration to all of the other people who I know face a similar barrage of unqualified pitches every day (and I won’t even get into the cold phone calls). The subject line of his last email was “Just busy?”

 Hi [name redacted], 

I know you’re just doing your job, but I wanted to give you some feedback as a busy CEO you are prospecting. Please take the below in that spirit — I’m just trying to be helpful. It looks like [your company] has an excellent management team, and I’m sure the team is doing really interesting work. 

A few key points: 

1. Your level of persistence is verging on annoying. I admire persistence, but the tone of your emails suggests that you are more focused on solving your problem (finding leads for your product) than mine. There is nothing in your emails that suggest you have done any homework on Etsy’s business and what we might need. I’ve written a lot about what Etsy is doing and I’m surprised that sales people like you don’t at least try to pull some of the content for the pitch (https://www.etsy.com/blog/news/2013/notes-from-chad-2012-year-in-review/). I feel like I’m on a long list of people you are cold-calling, you’re just looking for a “hit,” and I’m just a reminder in your Salesforce.com database.

2. If you look at my background, my background is heavy on technology and my path to CEO included being CTO of multiple companies. Your emails are very superficial given that I know this space pretty well. I’ve received hundreds of pitches over the years, and the ones that stand out are the ones that speak to the real needs of people doing the work of running large-scale Internet companies. Your pitch doesn’t reflect any knowledge about me personally and what I might already know from past experience.

3. As a CEO of a growing company, I generally have no availability. Nothing in your emails has made me feel like I need to carve out time from my schedule to meet with you. Simple repetition is not a strategy.

4. I had to look at your web site to see that the management team did some category-defining work with [well-known company in this person’s space]. You should sell that more. Don’t make your prospects do all the work of figuring out why they should answer your emails.

All that said, we’re not interested at this time, so you don’t need to email me again. Best of luck with your prospecting.

Why liberal arts education matters: the story of a Drucker (mis-)quote

When I did the Pando Monthly interview last week, I was asked to talk about the one thing I believe that almost no one else believes. I said that a liberal arts education is as important, or even more important, than a math and science education (here’s the clip).

Some people thought that I was taking a shot at math and science, but not at all. I just think that being successful in a modern society requires a broader understanding of humanity and people, and the liberal arts and humanities are important ingredients (Before the interview, Sarah Lacy and I talked about how you could learn everything you need to know about personal relationships in failing startups by reading Shakespeare’s King Lear). There wasn’t much time left in the interview, and my job was to give a pithy answer, but a number of people have asked me later why a liberal arts education matters to a CEO. I had an experience this week that illustrates why in a small but important way.

I spend a lot of time thinking about company culture, and talking with other people about the topic. Culture is critical. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner wrote: “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.” As you probably know, Gerstner is credited with one of the great company turnarounds with IBM in the 1990s. One question I hear and think about often is: how do you change aspects of your culture if you’re not satisified with them? As I thought about the topic, I was reminded of a quote I’ve seen attributed to Peter Drucker:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

If you search Google for the quote, you get 128,000 results. It’s a great quote. The implications of the quote are absolutely profound for anyone leading a company or a team. Does he mean you should simply accept the culture wholesale? Was Drucker suggesting that culture change was a hopeless endeavor, or was there some other context to the quote? How did he define “culture” anyway? I wanted to read the primary source material that surrounded it to understand why Drucker said it. I’ll admit I was surprised to have never come across this quote in all the Drucker I’ve read over the past few years. I set out to find the original source material.

What I learned is that it doesn’t appear Drucker ever actually wrote or said those words. I started my research by asking my Fancy Hands assistant to find the primary source for the quote. (Fancy Hands could be the most useful service EVER on the Internet, but I’ll save that for another post.) The assistant came back with this article, which attributed the quote to The Daily Drucker, a compendium of Drucker readings for each day of the year. In the article, the author writes about how he gave his nephew a copy of The Daily Drucker, and asked him later to list some of his favorite quotes, which included the culture quote. I have a Kindle copy of The Daily Drucker, and it turns out that the quote doesn’t actually appear in the book. (This made me laugh. The nephew clearly conned his uncle by not reading the book and doing a little Googling for quotes while saving the rest of his time for other pursuits.)

That aside, even if the quote had been in The Daily Drucker, it wasn’t the primary source material, so I asked the assistant to dig deeper. Awash in 128,000 meaningless Google results, she picked up the phone (gasp!) and called The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Very quickly, she was on email with Dr. Joseph A. Maciariello, Director of Research and Academic Director of the Drucker Institute. When asked about the quote, Dr. Maciariello pointed us to a piece Drucker wrote for the Wall St. Journal on March 28, 1991 with the title: “Don’t change corporate culture: use it,” on page A14. I won’t go into the hoops we had to go through to get a copy (it is surprisingly difficult for a regular person to buy articles from the WSJ archives). I read the article. Drucker writes about “cultural change” as the latest management fad and the need to change behaviors to achieve desired results. But he said that shouldn’t be confused with changing culture. Here’s the closest I could come to the quote in the actual written text:

What these [business] needs require are changes in behavior. But “changing culture” is not going to produce them. Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent. Nearly 50 years ago, Japan and Germany suffered the worst defeats in recorded history, with their values, their institutions and their culture discredited. But today’s Japan and today’s Germany are unmistakably Japanese and German in culture, no matter how different this or that behavior. In fact, changing behavior works only if it can be based on the existing “culture.”

The sentiment of the quote is roughly the same as the one that has been incorrectly attributed to Drucker 128,000 times but the power of the actual writing and ideas is in the nuance. In particular, the examples of Japan and Germany are uniquely powerful. (The rest of the piece goes much deeper on this but unfortunately it is not linkable). As I read the text, I had a moment of much clearer understanding where Drucker’s point on culture resonated in a way that the misquote simply didn’t deliver. As Gerstner wrote, matters of company culture trump just about everything else when you’re running a company, so this insight is incredibly important to the work I do on a very practical level. It explains why “Code as Craft” resonates so strongly in Etsy’s engineering culture, even though there was near-total change in how the team operated over the course of a few years. The actual text provides thoughtful, inspiring, and tangible examples (post-war Germany and Japan), whereas the misquote is negative and even defeatist (“Never try to change one” and “work with what you’ve got.”)

It’s a little disturbing that so many people could misquote Drucker for so long without any of the quoters realizing it, and I’m sure this quote has been bandied about in board rooms to justify all kinds of plans. I’m certain I have engaged in the same practice with other quotes if only because it takes a lot of work to find the original context, as this experience demonstrates. Misquoting is particularly rampant on the Internet and I’m not the first to write about it by any means — see “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” But each time we do it, we lose the opportunity to really understand what the person being quoted was really trying to say. We lose the deeper lessons of the text and only get the relative emptiness of a pithy headline that may have removed the insight of the original author. Taking a critical stance on that quote and having the tools to dive down into the primary source material took me from simply having a snappy out-of-context quote to a much deeper insight on a critically important subject.

When I got the first email from my Fancy Hands assistant pointing to the reference to The Daily Drucker, I wasn’t satisfied. I remembered how my professors emphasized the importance of correctly citing primary source material, and I became a pro at using the library and information sources in general. I learned how to look deeper into the text and ask the right questions to really get to the heart of an idea. I ended up with more questions, but much better and more informed ones. These are all skills I learned from my liberal arts education, and they are essential to the work I do every day. That’s the point I was trying to make.

Side note: Two blog posts in a few days? Having a kid has rearranged my schedule and my commitments so thoroughly that I’ve found a little time for writing. I hope to be writing more.

Interview at Pando Monthly in NYC

This Pando Monthly interview last week in NYC is easily the longest recorded interview I’ve ever done (one hour 45 minutes) and covers a wide variety of topics: my early days at Etsy, how we think about the IPO question, the importance of a liberal arts education, my first post-college job at Pizza Hut, my Southern roots, and Etsy’s new CFO Kristina Salen. I really enjoyed the interview. Sarah Lacy knows her stuff.

If you’re interested in the IPO question, be sure to read Etsy board member Fred Wilson’s post “The Third Way.”

I’m hiring an executive assistant

Thank you to all the applicants! This position has been filled!

I’m hiring a new executive assistant to work with me at Etsy. All the details on how to apply are below.  I thought blogging about the role rather than posting a generic job listing might produce the best results. First, why is this position open? My current assistant Jen McKaig has been promoted to an awesome new role on our Values & Impact team, which is responsible for our B Corp work, among other things. Jen was instrumental in Etsy becoming a Certified B Corp and helped make the B Corp Hack Day a success (as covered by HBR), so I am excited to see her move on to this important work full-time but now I need a replacement. (Side note: earlier in my career, I thought having an executive assistant was a bit vain, but now I know that most companies would fall apart without them. Be very kind to them.)

A detailed description of the role is below, including a special note from Jen about what it’s like to do the job and work with me. It’s an awesome, demanding, and super-fun job.

The details:

—-
As the Executive Assistant to the CEO at Etsy in Brooklyn, you are my right-hand person. Being a CEO is an awesome but also demanding job and the Executive Assistant job is no different. Some of the most demanding days start very early and end very late, so keeping things running smoothly is key, and the cost of any misfires is high. Etsy is a fast-growing 400+ person company that requires all kinds of coordination on all fronts to keep the ship running smoothly.

Here is what you will be doing:

  • My schedule has been called “crazy,” but there’s a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. I will need you to make sure it all works and that my optimism doesn’t make me believe the impossible, i.e. that I can get from Brooklyn to uptown Manhattan in 5 minutes.
  • You will keep my calendar in order when sometimes the time slots move so fast it feels more like a video game than a calendar.
  • Organize travel and make sure all aspects of trips work seamlessly from start to finish. You know I like window seats and like to stay near mass transit when I can.
  • Help me keep the broad range of personalities I work with every day at Etsy happy and engaged: artists, makers, investors, other executives, the Etsy executive team, and board members
  • Schedule board and investor meetings amongst some of the busiest people in the world, then make them seamless technically, logistically, and culinarily
  • I generally do the bulk of presentations and reports myself but the more you can help here, the better.
  • In general, make the Etsy team as productive and happy as possible! I work for them, so you work for them, too.

Etsy is an inspiring place, without a doubt, and being my assistant has its perks. You will know more about what is going on in the company than almost anyone, plus there are plenty of fun tasks to be done. On any given day, you might be:

  • organizing a board meeting and retreat in Berlin
  • pulling together a meeting with people who are literally changing the world
  • providing art direction for a company talent show, all while making sure you have good beer and that the kegs are tapped correctly and on time
  • working with a group of craftspeople and carpenters to build out elaborate new meeting spaces brimming with Etsy goodness
  • editing scripts and helping write the company’s April Fools Joke (see Etsy Acquires Portland)

You are:

  • Professional. Etsy is a fun place, but also a serious business with a lot of moving parts. You know how to have lots of balls in the air that can’t be dropped. You’ve been an executive assistant before in a similar environment.
  • Unflappable. Crazy things happen. You should be able to pause and laugh at them for a brief second before quickly taking action to make crazy problems disappear seamlessly.
  • Passionate about Etsy. To be successful at Etsy you have to believe in what we are doing.

I asked my current assistant Jen to write a bit about what it’s like working with me. I’ll let Jen take it from here:

Even as I write this with the nervous excitement of just being promoted, I feel sentimental and sad to be passing on the torch. Chad is an outstanding manager/teacher/captain and you are a lucky individual if you get this position. That being said, let me give it to you straight — this job is important. I like to think of it as a body guard position, and the bodies you’re guarding are Chad’s time and the company momentum. There are hundreds of people, both internally and externally, who will want Chad’s time. It is your job to know what is important. You must be able to negotiate or counter requests with a firm respectful decisiveness. This is not hard (most of the time). You will be working with amazing people. You must also know how to prioritize both your time and Chad’s time, and then re-prioritize, because things will start changing from the minute you wake up in the morning.

This is an exciting role because you get to work with EVERYONE! Oh yeah, being a people person is definitely a prerequisite. There are hundreds of details to keep track of, from fun restaurants for the board dinners to the latest video conferencing software. While all of this is going on, guarding what makes Etsy special is vital. In our company values, we state that we believe fun should be part of everything we do. It turns out that fun takes planning and dedication, you should be mindful of this. The last thing I will say is this, you must know that when something looks like it can’t be done there is always a way, and it usually involves using your clever innovative co-workers.

Thanks, Jen! Remember, details to apply are above and you can start immediately.