A book that changed me: A People’s History of the United States

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Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that makes me think of one of the books that changed the way I view the world in a truly fundamental way (and a book not without its problems, which I note below). I first read this book when I was 19. The first pages were startling in their framing of Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New” World. From the outset, Columbus’ arrival is told from the natives’ point-of-view — something I had never considered up to that point:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?. . . .

. . . Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:

Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful . . . the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals. . . .

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . .” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

From here, the book’s nearly 700 pages cover American history all the way through the Clinton presidency. The book has its critics, like Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg:

He says that Zinn’s desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

I’m not a historian so I can’t comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of specific parts of Zinn’s book. From a layman’s perspective, though, the opening of the book appears to quote primary sources (Columbus’ logs) so I feel comfortable setting aside the core critique at least for this section. Zinn’s work has been so politicized that I looked for other sources to corroborate his point-of-view on Columbus’ arrival and found this story from the Smithsonian which also includes quotes from Columbus’ logs:

Columbus had no doubts about how to proceed, either with the lovable but lazy Arawaks or with the hateful but industrious Caribs [the Arawaks’ enemies]. He had come to take possession and to establish dominion. In almost the same breath, he described the Arawaks’ gentleness and innocence and then went on to assure the king and queen of Spain, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three. And they are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs.”

It’s so easy to get into political/cultural wars when discussing these subjects but I think going in that direction can obscure an important lesson that should be universal. My takeaway from reading Zinn is that we can’t recognize Columbus without also telling the story of the Arawaks, even though it makes us uncomfortable. History provides no blank slates. In modern times, when we talk about the hot “new” neighborhood in town, we must also recognize and honor the people who have been displaced. When we lionize CEOs in the business press, we have to also recognize the stories of the workers in their companies and in the supply chains that enable their businesses.  It’s not always comfortable but any honest history should tell the whole story, and I’m grateful to Howard Zinn — even with his flaws — for opening my eyes to that perspective.

Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s

Oklahoma! cast

I serve on the board of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and it’s one of the most gratifying things I do. I’ve been involved since 2014 but have gotten much more deeply involved over the past 18 months. Live theater can be an antidote to so much of what ails society right now — one of the few remaining shared experiences in an on-demand world. Studies have shown that the shared experience of live theater is so powerful that it can synchronize strangers’ heartbeats. I have such respect and admiration for Susan Feldman, who as the artistic director for St. Ann’s has been bringing amazing theater to NYC for almost 40 years now (here’s a nice profile of Susan in the NY Times in 2015). Seeing each season develop from “we’re thinking about bringing this to Brooklyn” to the actors on the stage on opening night of a show is an incredible experience. Every production starts with major risks and obstacles that must be overcome and there’s a real “show must go on” mentality to the work.

This season kicks off this year with Oklahoma! (tickets) which the NY Times listed as one of five shows to see in NYC this October:

From the story:

The version that St. Ann’s Warehouse is presenting at its Brooklyn home (through Nov. 11) was first seen in 2015 as part of the Bard SummerScape series north of the city. Directed by Daniel Fish, it is not only inclusive but also communitarian, featuring a dark interpretation, a diverse cast, an immersive staging — and a chili dinner during intermission.

I saw early sketches of the staging at a board meeting several months ago and “immersive” is right. I won’t spoil it with more details but check out the huge photo in the NY story mentioned above. And, yes, there is the chili dinner at intermission.

The show features Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey and was profiled in the Times yesterday:

Whether you love live theater or just want to try something new, go check out Oklahoma! Tickets are on sale now. See you at the show.

 

Advice to CEOs: digging out from a jammed calendar

My friend Lara Hogan published an email I had sent to her way back (“Advice for a new executive“) and it turned out to be super-helpful to a lot of people based on the engagement with her tweet about it. In a similar spirit, I’m publishing a previously-private email I sent to a startup CEO who was asking me for tactical guidance on how to dig out from a jammed calendar that he felt was preventing him from thinking strategically and focusing on bigger things. I was asked for similar advice multiple times since then so time to publish. I think this advice is generally useful to managers at all levels. Below is what I wrote, with only minor edits.


First, make sure you are prioritizing your core CEO duties first. I think Fred does a good job of articulating what those are in this post. In short, 1) keeping everyone on the same page with vision and strategy, 2) recruiting, and 3) making sure you have enough money in the bank (fundraising and revenue activities).

Some questions to ask:

  1. Are there meetings where you feel like you’re doing someone else’s job that isn’t filled? (example: you’re doing the work of VP of Engineering in addition to your CEO duties) If that’s the case, focus on filling that role. Start with the one that will give you the most leverage and save you the most time. The difficult part is that it is MORE work to fill a role than to “just do it” sometimes but waiting only means your life will suck longer.
  2. Are you holding meetings to compensate for the weakness of someone on your team? (example: you attend sales-related meetings that really should be run by VP of Sales but you don’t trust that person to do the meeting the way you want, so you attend).  Apply appropriate pressure on your VP of Sales to do the job (and I’m specifically referring to the “feel pressure / apply pressure” concept that Ben Horowitz has written about). If you don’t feel confident in that approach, it’s probably time to put a plan together to replace that person ASAP.
  3. Are there meetings you attend that you can delegate fully to someone else? Are there any high-performance people on your team who could take on more responsibility? Make that happen.
  4. Are you having any 1-on-1’s that aren’t essential? Everyone will want to spend time with you but make sure any 1-on-1’s are a good use of time for YOU. Kill the ones that aren’t a good use of your time.
  5. Are the meetings you have useful with clear agendas and followup items? (Nothing wastes time like useless meetings) This HBR article (“How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting“) is a useful framework to evaluate whatever you are doing now. It outlines an overall approach and includes a sample agenda. Also see Ken Norton’s post “Meetings that don’t suck.”
  6. Do you have any recurring meetings that have outlived their usefulness? Kill them.
  7. Are there projects/initiatives that are low-value but take up a lot of your time? Consider killing them.
  8. Are you leveraging your executive assistant to the fullest? Do you have the right EA? It’s a bit of work but I suggest the “quarterly time analysis” that Matt Blumberg talks about in this post about how he works with his EA. The post overall is useful. Over time, you can teach your EA a rule set to enforce the way you want to spend your time.

Sometimes you’re just in a period where things are going to suck and you’ll be working a lot of hours for some period. You want to minimize the length of those periods but sometimes it’s unavoidable to have a packed schedule. In those cases, the best you can do is try to get a good night’s sleep every night, eat well, and exercise. Good luck!

Technology, Craft, and Local Economies

John Chaffee (bio) invited to be the keynote speaker on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the NC East Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps drive economic development in eastern North Carolina, which is basically the area between Raleigh and the coast. That area is also where I grew up, specifically in Greenville. The title of my talk was “Technology, Craft, and Local Economies” and my goal was to bring some ideas that might be helpful to the folks in my hometown building their next-generation economy. The slides are here and I’ve included slide-by-slide notes below (just scroll down) so you can follow the storyline. I got really positive feedback on the talk (see a couple of nice comments on twitter: 1, 2) so I’m posting my notes here since I’m hoping it could be helpful to other people building local economies outside of the places that get all the attention like NYC and the Bay Area.

To get the most out of the presentation, it’s important to understand my relationship to the place where I was presenting. I went to public schools there from K-12, graduating with many of the same people in my kindergarten class. When I graduated from high school, I hadn’t yet flown on an airplane and my only international travel consisted of a quick excursion for a few hours over the border to Juarez, Mexico and a few days in Canada, both on family road trips (I tweeted about how remarkable it felt to fly into Greenville — my hometown! — for the first time in my life earlier this week.) But my life after that was a crazy rocket ship in every way, with millions of miles of travel, building products and companies that people love, meetings at the White House, and all kinds of things I never would have imagined. It’s been a truly amazing ride since that kid who had never been on a plane left town to go out into the world in 1990.

I think a lot about the intense cultural divides we have in the US and the world today. However you describe it — red/blue, city/country, or “coastal elite”/heartland — I’ve got a lot of experience living in either culture. I’ve learned a lot in the past 20 years working in SF/Silicon Valley and in New York City and wanted to share some perspective from those life-changing experiences but also wanted to share with a sense of respect for where I come from.

My talk was at the end of the event and as I listened to the speakers before me (all from the region), I added one slide to my presentation on the fly about the concept of risk (see slide 80). So much of what we talk about is physical infrastructure — airports, broadband, highways — but how a culture thinks about risk is incredibly important. It’s almost a cliche but it’s true: you have to be willing to fail and try again. The culture around risk-taking is baked into how kids are raised, educated, and encouraged (or discouraged). It’s important for any region to build a culture of risk that is aligned with the rewards they seek. On a basic level, it’s about defaulting to “how do we do X?” not “X will never work” or “we tried X before and didn’t work.”

The trip was a good reminder that we can all learn a lot from each other. I was really impressed with what the people in my hometown and the surrounding region were doing to push the economy forward there. I mean, it’s really great to start a craft brewery in a place like Portland or Brooklyn but developing an entire ecosystem of craft brewing in eastern North Carolina, from four such places in 2010 to 27 today? Kind of unbelievable. North Carolina has a really complex history as it relates to alcohol and was one of the states that voted against the 21st Amendment that repealed prohibition. When I was growing up, seeing people in my family’s social circles drink at all was incredibly rare.

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This was all very interesting to ponder after my talk while drinking some Pactolus Light Lager (named after a famous local ghost story from my youth) along with a few other styles at Pitt Street Brewing Company, a new microbrewery a few doors down from the site of the barber shop where I got my hair cut as a kid. I’m admittedly a bit of a beer snob and I’ll say with confidence that the beer I had there stood up to the beers I’ve had in places like Brooklyn, Portland, and San Francisco. Big thumbs up.

Without further ado, the slide notes are below. If anyone finds anything of interest in this presentation and/or wants to tell me about some of the successes where you live, my email is hello plus chaddickerson.com. Thanks again to John Chaffee and the NC East Alliance for inviting me to speak.

Slide-by-slide notes

(here are the slides again)

1 – (Title slide)

2 – It’s good to be back where i learned about hard work. My brother and I had a big lawn mowing business when we were kids. I think we had 25 or so lawns at our peak. Dad taught me about business. In particular I remember a lesson about interest.

We asked my dad if he would buy us a riding lawnmower so we could scale up our business and mow more lawns. He said he couldn’t buy it for us but he would loan us the money. He loaned us money via his Sears credit card and told me he would do it for something like “prime + 8.” (can’t remember the exact number) Prime rate was about 12% in 1984! He set up a payment schedule and we paid him back with the proceeds from the business. It was a good lesson about investing for growth. 

3 – I graduated from DH Conley High School and went to my senior prom in this building. I’m really glad to have my English teacher here today, Ms. Jena Kerns. I wish Mrs. Tripp was here. She was my calculus teacher and gave me my worst grade in high school. If she was here, I would tell her that I think things turned out ok for me!

4 – The News & Observer (N&O) in Raleigh was my first job. Here’s the Raleigh skyline. I had just graduated with an English degree from Duke and took a low-paying clerical job there. It happened to be around the department where they were building web sites. You might not realize it but the N&O was the first daily newspaper on the web in the United States back in late 1993, early 1994.

5 – After a few years in Atlanta working for CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (another newspaper), I headed to the west coast in 1998 and spent ten years there, living through the first Internet boom and bust in the late 90s / early 2000s

6 – And then I got a call from a nascent crafts marketplace in Brooklyn. . . .

7 – . . . called Etsy. I was CTO there for three years and CEO for six. We took the company public in 2015. In that first three years, I and the team I assembled built the technology platform that helped Etsy scale to where it is today. From the time I walked in the door until the time I left, revenue grew about 50x and the company went from a chaotic startup to a billion dollar publicly-traded company. I learned a lot in that arc and some of that is what I’ll talk about today.

8 –  This talk is about technology, craft, and local economics and I want to start with technology. Our lives are moving faster than ever.

9 – The web was adopted faster than any technology in history and the web as we knew it was significantly disrupted over the past decade with the rise of mobile.

10 – The iPhone was only announced in 2007 and just in the past nine years, the use of the web has migrated to something we carry in our pockets.

11 – Some say we are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution, one that affects our daily lives more than ever, not just work.

If you think this sounds overblown, just look at some of the things happening around us today that affect our daily lives.

12 – In one generation, we’ve gone from this clunky and not that powerful computer on a desktop:

13 – To incredibly powerful computers we put in our pocket. The latest iPhone has 1000 times the processing power of the Apollo Guidance Computer that landed people on the moon.

(Source: https://pages.experts-exchange.com/processing-power-compared)

14 – we’re now going beyond the supercomputers in our pockets to supercomputers that we wear, and this has even more implications for our lives. This device has saved lives — just Google “apple watch saved lives” and you’ll see many stories.

This fourth industrial revolution isn’t just about wearable computers. We’re seeing even more fundamental changes in where technology, biology, and the physical world meet.

15 – This is a plant-based product that is being engineered to cook and taste like beef. CEO said: “We want to have a product that a burger lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had.” In the natural world, cows eat grass and synthesize it into meat.

They and other companies are using artificial intelligence and sophisticated machine learning techniques to replicate what the cow does without the environmental damage of raising livestock and without the cholesterol and saturated fat in conventional meat. This sounds like science fiction but it is happening right now and being served by chefs in top restaurants around the country. The company has secured almost $400 million in funding and say they’re working on poultry and steak.

16 – This fourth industrial revolution isn’t just about what we eat, though. We’re reimagining fuel, healthcare, and many other things.

17 – This can be a little bewildering and feel like things are moving too fast.

One of the things I learned in high school at DH Conley is Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means the faster things go, the stronger the desire is to slow things down, to make things simple again.

18 – (no notes)

19 – In my nine years at Etsy, I saw this first hand. The goods sold on Etsy are mostly by small makers, many using time-honored techniques that existed hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. But the scope and scale of Etsy could only happen on the Internet. But it’s an Internet platform that capitalizes on simple traditions your grandparents and great grandparents would recognize.

20 – In the age of fast, younger generations have taken up crafts like knitting in huge numbers.

21 – farmers markets are more popular than ever

22 – food trucks are everywhere and provide an incredible amount of uniqueness and diversity in the food we eat.

23 – And it may surprise you, but young people are making their own butter again! For decades, you, your parents, and grandparents have been trying to step away from this kind of drudgery, right?

So, on the one hand, you have companies synthesizing meat without livestock and on the other, you have young people deciding to make their own butter again when you can buy a perfectly good stick of butter for $1 at any grocery store.

24 – How does this all fit together and make sense? What’s going on here? This can seem like a paradox but fast and slow actually feed off of each other. I’m going to talk through three particular forces that are combining to create this new reality. When there is great change, there is opportunity but you have to understand the underlying forces to be able to capitalize on the change.

25 – (no notes)

26 – the first. . .the rise of millennials

27 – Who are the millennials?

28 – they use their phones for everything and the most important thing is retail. Commodity retail will fully move to Amazon. There is no incentive to go to a store, pay more, and go through the hassle of buying toilet paper, toothpaste, detergent, etc. Outside of commodity purchasing, what will millennials be doing with their money?

29 – this orientation isn’t going to change or age out – this is a product of the new Internet economy and a fundamental realignment of how this generation views the world.

Remember the butter churning? When you think of millennials making butter as an experience instead of simply producing a good, it all makes a lot more sense.

30 – It’s also important to understand how work is changing. The habits of millennials are accelerating changes in the nature of work itself. To put it simply, you can learn anything anywhere and increasingly do high-paying work from anywhere.

31 – Freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027. Economic development efforts have to take this trend into account.

32 – Millennials are leading this trend.

33 – I looked at two of the hottest areas in computer science right now and anyone with a broadband connection can get the best education on the most cutting-edge topics for free. You can learn about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency from a Princeton professor

34 – and machine learning from Stanford

35 – and it’s not just universities putting their services online. Entirely new products like Codecademy are in place to deliver education for high-paying jobs. This $80K average might seem crazy for someone who has “only” mastered an online course but I’ve hired hundreds of self-taught engineers at higher salaries. I’m standing here today because I taught myself how to code on the Internet 25 years ago. It’s way easier now.

36 –  and it’s not just coding. You can learn architecture from the best architects in the world like Frank Gehry

37 – or how to make beer

38 – or how to start a shop on Etsy

39 – All of the infrastructure to build a massive digital business exists today — it’s not a “wave of the future” thing. It’s literally your brain plus hundreds or thousands of dollars to get started in a very real way. The risks have never been lower. I personally know many people who have built companies worth hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and it all started using these services. This is why broadband is important. With a high-speed Internet connection, you have the exact same access to tools as someone in NY or Silicon Valley. Literally zero difference.

So it’s easier than ever to start a business. Not everyone is going to start their own business, though, so it’s important to understand that employment is changing, too.

40 – More companies are location-less. They don’t have a HQ. If you’re trying to bring business to a specific area, what does it mean when a company isn’t formally located anywhere? With more freelancers and more distributed workforces, all of our traditional assumptions about building local economies are challenged.

41 – Technology makes it possible to both buy anything and start a business from anywhere. Many of the next generation of companies will not even have offices. This is not science fiction. It’s happening right now.

42 – One example is Automattic. Their software WordPress powers 30% of world’s web sites. You probably used their software today.

43 – These are not insignificant companies.

44 – Another is Invision

45 – again, this is a very serious company with an amazing customer list

46 – This is a quintessential millennial employment message. They’re not selling you to move to work with them, they’re selling that you can live anywhere to work for them.

(BONUS: As a side note, there is huge demand for great designers in the tech industry, almost equal to software developers. In the rush to focus on STEM, don’t forget the designers. As Internet has gone mainstream, it’s more important to make products usable!)

47 – So, many of the next generation of companies may not even have offices. The question becomes: how do I get these people, many of whom are really well-paid, to live in my community? There’s one trend where local culture, local flavor, and local influence win. 

48 – I call this market “craft business,” and it’s booming. When I use the word “craft,” I mean goods and experiences based on uniqueness and taking advantage of all the modern tools I mentioned a few moments ago.

49 – Etsy is a great example of the power of “craft business.”

50 – I decided to take a few minutes (and it was only a few minutes) to find some businesses here in Greenville, NC that are thriving on Etsy. It didn’t take long.

Thomas and Meghan have 27,188 sales in this shop selling jewelry and two other shops on Etsy selling candles and craft supplies. He quit his full-time job two years ago to run his Etsy shop with Meghan, who designs the jewelry. Looking at his general price point and number of sales, this business is grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And this is one of three shops.

51 – I also found Heather’s shop. Heather is 29 year old graphic designer living with her husband, Garrett, and our one and a half year old son, Finn. Listed her first item in September 2013 and within a year, had her own full-time business on Etsy as her day job.

People like Heather and Thomas and Meghan often fly under the radar on employment stats. They may not have a physical store front. They may not show up in traditional “small business” government stats. But they are there, and in growing numbers.

52 – Lots of small can add up to big.

53 – But it’s not just Etsy. You see this demand for small/unique in places like beer consumption here in Eastern NC. These slides are copies of John Chaffee’s slides (head of NC East Alliance) from earlier today.

54-55 – (no notes)

56 – So, from 4 to 27 craft breweries here in eastern NC over the past seven years. Growing up here, I couldn’t have imagined this was possible.

57 – But it’s also not surprising because this is part of a global phenomenon. Data point: sales of craft beer exceeded sales of Budweiser for the first time in 2013. 

44% of 21- to 27-year-old drinkers today have never even tried Budweiser. A brand that we all knew as the “king of beers” is not only losing market share, it is borderline meaningless to its new generation of customers. This is stunning and it’s happening with many consumer brands that were once thought to be unassailable.

58 – and it’s not just physical goods like crafts and beer. It’s services like hospitality as represented via Airbnb. And, like Etsy and craft beer, it’s happening right here in Greenville, just a little under the radar. I now have more choices of places to stay when I visit.

59 – Airbnb has tapped into the entrepreneurial spirit of homeowners while also satisfying the desire to have a unique experience when you travel (again, remember the importance of experience to millennials). I’ve rented Airbnbs in Montreal and San Francisco and each time, it was less expensive than a hotel room but also a better experience as I was able to live in the local community during my time there. (And, yes, it feels a little ironic saying this on stage at a Hilton!)

60 – Etsy, beer, hospitality, and also food. Small is outperforming big and many of the brands that we consider iconic American brands are becoming meaningless — just like Budweiser — to a new generation.

I was pleased to see that there are nascent efforts here in eastern NC like the Eastern North Carolina Food Commercialization Center (google it) to participate in this food renaissance. As a place with deep agricultural roots, I can think of nothing more promising.

61 – (no notes)

62 – I wanted to close with a few final thoughts on what this might mean for local economies.

63 – First, it just might be healthier to create the conditions for a lot of smaller enterprises than to chase the one big employer.

64 – Case in point: the MillerCoors plant in Eden, NC was a critical part of the community for decades. When global parent company Anheuser merged with InBev, consolidation meant “efficiencies” which meant hundreds of people losing their jobs, which left a big hole in the town.

65 – If you look west at Asheville, though, there’s a microbrewery boom and it is has become a destination for beer drinkers all over the world. 30 craft breweries and related businesses there employed 660 full time people plus 280 part-timers. Many of those brewers have formally committed to a living wage. They may not pay as much as the union jobs in Eden did but people are able to make a living and provide for their families. And if one of the 30 closes, there are 29 others. This is more sustainable and resilient.

66 – (no notes)

67 – Traditional office space tends to look like this — not very exciting or inspiring.

68 – I mentioned WeWork before as one of the tools out there that makes it easy to start companies. You can walk in and get an office the same day with a simple month-to-month lease. Great wifi, great coffee, and a community of people like you. This matters to the growing generation of freelancers.

69 – This is WeWork in Philadelphia. While this may look like people just hanging out, there’s a good chance that each of the people in this photo is pulling down six figures as a software developer, a designer, or a product manager.

70 – And if you think it’s only the youngest generation, here’s a photo of where I work every day in Brooklyn.

71 – the highest speed broadband possible is important. I am so impressed with what Wilson, NC has done in building municipal broadband — a town smaller than Greenville. They have shown that anyone can do this. When I went to the historic FCC hearing to speak about net neutrality in Feb 2015, I was just as excited to run into the team from Wilson there advocating for municipal broadband.

72 – Assume the businesses starting in eastern NC are global from day one

73 – Etsy started in 2005 and the first international sale was on the same day. People starting businesses on Etsy and other platforms can sell to the world from day one and know how to do it.

74 – You can also market a product anywhere in the world using ad platforms like Google AdWords. I spent five minutes creating a hypothetical ad for NC barbecue targeting ex-patriates in London, Paris, and Dublin. I discovered that for $10, I can get 74 clicks and 10,000 impressions on keywords like barbecue, nc barbecue, and pulled pork. With a little more work, I could determine if this acquisition model would support and scale a business.

75 – launching an ad campaign used to mean meeting with multiple sales people in TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Now you can buy ads with a credit card and launch to the world in 5 minutes, targeting down to the zip code and paying only for people who click on your ad. This is absolutely transformative.

76 – if I need to hire people outside my local area to stay in constant communication with them to build the business, I can set up a Slack channel and video conference with anyone in the world to make anything happen

77 – millennials want unique food, art, culture. In a world where the largest cohort of consumers want unique experiences, the biggest advantage you have is your local culture. You can’t re-create another city. Don’t try to replicate Silicon Valley. You have to lead with your local culture.

78 – I’m really happy to see Greenville undertaking efforts like Uptown Greenville to recognize the need for a more experiential way of living with integrated housing, shopping, and the arts.

79 – and the efforts of East Carolina University to work with municipalities like Farmville [back when Farmville was a big online game, I always thought back to the actual place – CD] to reclaim this gas station to become a glass-blowing facility (love the name “GlasStation”!)

80 – But local culture is also about risk and that’s not an infrastructure thing. It’s a mental thing. The main difference between Silicon Valley and everywhere else is appetite for risk. People try and fail all the time. Lots of “how do we do that?” without a lot of “that will never work.” In SV, it’s generally accepted that 9 out of 10 investments will fail. 90%! But the 10% that work are often world-changing. It’s the part of the culture and working there that was really life-changing for me. The biggest critique you’ll get in SV is that you’re not thinking big enough. In addition to everything else I’ve talked about, I urge you to think about risk. It’s reflected in everything from local banking to local politics to education to how you raise your kids. Big rewards require big risk. Do whatever you can to make eastern NC the place where you can take the kinds of risks required to do the big things that move us all forward.

81 – If you can get your head around this contradiction and work it to your advantage, the sky’s the limit. It’s exciting to see what y’all are doing to build a next-generation eastern North Carolina and again, I’m really honored to be here in the place where I grew up.

82 – (no notes – the end!)

First issue of Fieldnotes newsletter is out!

Earlier this month I wrote that I was launching a newsletter called Fieldnotes. I just sent out the first issue which covers:

  • a management framework you can use immediately
  • readings on social responsibility, business, “shareholder value,” and capitalism
  • research on correlations among diversity, profit, and stock price
  • Leonard Bernstein on jazz

Aside from the core task of putting the content together, I enjoyed all of the hands-on learning that you get when you start with an idea and deliver an end product. Email marketing, design, analytics, and everything else. This was completely a one-man show so if there’s anything you love or hate about it, it’s all on me (btw, I already know I’m not a good designer!)

If you’re interested in future issues, subscribe here and/or take a peek at the first issue.

Why I’m launching a newsletter

I announced on Twitter that I’m launching a newsletter. It’s called Chad Dickerson’s Fieldnotes (more about the inspiration for the name). I expect it to be roughly monthly starting later this month. Subscribe here. Some people have asked me why so I thought I’d explain.

In general, I plan to be writing a lot more and the newsletter is part of it. My vision for my newsletter is a focal point for all of my writing (on this blog and elsewhere) while aggregating and commenting on some of the interesting things I find along the way. Topics will include business, music, books, culture, what I’m up to, and what I learned as a CEO and CTO. I have a lot to say and I’m excited to be able to say it as a free agent with a high degree of editorial independence.

My time at Etsy was also very profound and there are lots of insights from that experience that I haven’t had a chance to lay out yet. Writing is a great way to process and refine one’s thinking. Very few people have the chance to take on two major executive roles (CTO and CEO) in a company like Etsy from building a team and rebuilding a platform as a startup CTO (the proverbial changing of the jet engine while in flight) to leading a high-profile public company as CEO and Chair of the board. I did that and I’m confident that I took that path in a way that was true to my self and to a set of larger principles. I know other people are trying to do the same thing and I hope some of my writing will give them insight and strength.

Many people reach out to me and want to talk about Etsy as a socially responsible company. I will certainly write about that, probably a lot and in a very pragmatic way. Socially responsible business remains a passion of mine. That business orientation was super important to me in my time at Etsy but I also think the focus on that aspect of Etsy can obscure the sheer improbability of *any* venture-backed company making it through all the stages we made it through at Etsy. In my time there, Etsy wasn’t just special in a cultural sense, it was very special in a pure business sense. If you look at this CB Insights analysis of the cohort of companies who raised seed rounds in 2008-10, only 5 out of 1098 had a $1B+ exit. 3 of those went public and 2 were acquired. These kinds of odds are astounding for any company, much less a spirited and unconventional company like Etsy. We were doing a lot of things that simply hadn’t been done before or even attempted. (Oh, and we also faced down Amazon in the process. No big deal. When the New Yorker visited one day, the headline of their story was “Visiting Etsy, Amazon’s Next Prey” and SNL Weekend Update had a great bit on the competition around the same time — see 2:45 mark in this video)

I wrote a lot while at Etsy and always always loved doing it. A few still take me back to the moment I wrote them as if it was yesterday. Only two weeks into my arrival, I wrote about the massive challenges I immediately encountered as CTO in September 2008. I wrote the first post and the About page on the Etsy engineering blog, Code as Craft. I wrote about my long-term vision for Etsy in May 2012 as CEO when we became a B Corp, dropping a reference to fellow Brooklynite and (I think) Etsy kindred spirit Walt Whitman. When we went public, I wrote a post referencing James Joyce and quoted Ovid. I was never doing this to be a pretentious show-off. My view of the world is just very integrated. Liberal arts, tech, art, business, technology, literature, music — they are all connected and the more we make connections across all of those disciplines, the better we will be for it (side note: who among us isn’t wishing that tech leaders didn’t have a stronger handle on ethics, gender issues, history, and politics?) Expect that to come through in my newsletter and this blog.

So, if you’re looking for business advice neatly prepared into one-size-fits-all hermetically-sealed listicles, prepare to be gravely disappointed. If you want pragmatic insight into business from someone who experienced a lot and you also appreciate the occasional link to a video of the very last Sex Pistols show at Winterland in SF in 1978 or Orson Welles interviewing Andy Kaufman or an illustrated guide to Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” I’m your guy.  (Subscribe here.)

Remembering Evelyn McNeill

In the “old days” of the web, occasionally you would come across a subject that hadn’t been covered before and if you wrote about it, you could quickly become authoritative on the subject. There was an altruism to the whole endeavor as sometimes you were surfacing history that was not broadly known. See this old Metafilter post from 2005 about the ruins of the Belgum Sanitarium in the Berkeley hills, for which I briefly became an “authority” for doing nothing but taking photos and writing about it. It’s with a similar spirit that I want to do my part in recording for posterity the life of Evelyn McNeill, who I was thinking about today. Evelyn’s legacy is meaningful to me and many others.

Evelyn McNeill was a friend of mine who passed away at age 86 on July 20, 2016. Just before her death, she wrote a book about her incredible life: Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads: A Memoir. I was honored that she asked me to write the foreword (pasted below this post) in August 2013.

Evelyn was a neighbor who was a customer of my and my brother’s lawn-mowing business when we were kids (in the Acknowledgements of her book, she wrote: “I am proud to see how far he has gone since the years he mowed my lawn!”) She was the first female faculty member at the East Carolina University School of Medicine (where she taught Neuroanatomy) and in the late 1970s filed a complaint against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when she found that she was being paid less than men with equal responsibilities. She won that case in a time when such cases were nearly unheard of (this episode and all of its complexity is covered over 10 full pages in her book). Evelyn was a patriotic feminist who served in the Army and later in the Army Reserves over the course of 36 years. When she retired in 1989 as a colonel, she was awarded the Legion of Merit, an award commissioned by the President and given for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” Evelyn lived a life of service, always loving and dutiful in the way she conducted herself but never afraid to be tough and speak up for herself.evelyn and me

When I sent her the draft of my foreword, she told me that what I wrote was “overly generous.” It really wasn’t if you knew her. I was fortunate to reconnect with her in the years before she passed. I came to my hometown of Greenville, NC in 2014 to speak to her Rotary Club (that’s me posing with her as she holds a copy of her book). When I was asked to speak at the Duke Fuqua Distinguished Speaker Series in March 2013 (YouTube), she was in the audience (she had gotten her Masters at Duke) and we had dinner afterwards.

Evelyn McNeill was a remarkable woman. I’ve never met anyone quite like her. I’m posting this in hopes that the fullness of Evelyn’s life and impact lives on the web for a very long time. I’ve pasted the foreword I wrote for her book below along with some links. I’ll close with the words that close the Introduction to her book:

. . . that journey has carried me where I never thought I could go. I have peered into places of hurt, sadness, and even bitterness that arose along the way. But this exercise in looking back has allowed those few inevitable elements to fall away and lifted me closer than ever to that concept of Christ-like love that surpasses all understanding.

So in these pages, my nieces will indeed find an aunt who lost love, but found it again and again; and one who felt the void of not having children of her own, but never grieved over it. In the happy faces of my siblings’ children and grandchildren, after all, I can see my mother and father and the legacy of love they left behind.

If there’s a common theme that can be attached to the pages of this book, let it be found in two words so often attached to the bumpers of cars driven by Christians these days:

LOVE WINS.

Links


Foreword from Evelyn’s book, Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads: A Memoir

When I was a young boy in the early to mid-1980s, I lived in Greenville, N.C. My brother and I had a relative lawn-mowing empire for two boys: about twenty-five lawns in total.  One of our most loyal customers was Evelyn McNeill, whose home was just two doors down from our own. Of all the people we served, I enjoyed working at Evelyn’s house the most. While many of our customers strived to keep their lawns simply neat during the warm months, what I could only call a landscape around her property transcended the very idea of a “lawn” in its beauty, aesthetic taste, and attention to detail. As a young boy curious about the world, I marveled at her vast array of carefully labeled plants along the well-tended paths in her wooded garden. The woods now contain a custom-built tree house, a playful touch that a boy like me could really appreciate. An adult with a tree house! It illustrated the exquisite taste, care, and joie de vivre that Evelyn demonstrated to me in everything she did, from her research to her gardening to caring for her dear mother.

Evelyn was the first Ph.D. I ever met in my life. In fact, until I went off to college, when I heard someone say “Ph.D.,” my mental image was of Evelyn. Her beautiful study with all the signs of rigorous intellectual thought inspired me as a young boy to always be engaged in the world of ideas and the joys of living a life of the mind. Her unbridled curiosity about everything from architecture to horticulture to medicine to art inspired me to be a well-rounded person and a citizen of the larger world.

I will always recall with fondness Evelyn’s gift to me for high school graduation: a set of luggage. Although at that point I had never even flown on a plane, I understood the gift as a subtle suggestion to go see the world, learn new things, and meet new people. Since then, I’ve developed a love for travel and learning about new cultures around the world, and it started with that generous and inspired gift.

Evelyn is a remarkable and dare I say iconoclastic woman. I spent ten years in Berkeley, California, where iconoclasts are a dime a dozen. I learned there that the true iconoclasts among us are the ones who quietly challenge convention in ways that don’t attract newspaper headlines, as Evelyn has done in her life and work. Evelyn is a humble iconoclast, a woman who pursued a career without family or children of her own, but always showed the love of a mother toward the children of her extended family and kids like me, who she inspired with her sharp mind and boundless generosity.

This is the story of her life and the people she has touched and shaped along the way. I am incredibly lucky to count myself among them.

Chad Dickerson

August 2013 / Brooklyn, NY