Why I Read Business Blogs
This morning, before I even got out of bed, a venture capitalist made me laugh.
My habit these days is to make a cup of Lapsang souchong before sunrise, then curl up with my laptop to read e-mail and peruse the collection of business-related weblogs I follow on a regular basis. Today the first I clicked on was VentureBlog, where David Hornik, a partner in August Capital, had posted an anecdote about an entrepreneur in search of funding who actually clipped his fingernails during the pitch meeting.
When I tell people that I read blogs, they usually say something vaguely condescending to the effect that "it must be nice to have so much free time." Most people think of blogs as public diaries kept by the kinds of egotists who make loud, inappropriate political comments at family barbecues or hog the discussion at book clubs, or wannabe journalists who post inflammatory stories with no fact-checking. And among the 20 million blogs that have been created to date, there certainly are plenty of those, and some are even good.
The truth is that I recently quit my day job to start a company of my own and have absolutely no free time. The business blogs I read aren't written by, or for, fools. Reading them is something I consider part--granted, an entertaining part--of my "job."
VentureBlog is written by a collection of VCs from various funds. I've learned many practical things from Hornik in the past, such as how to pitch a company at Demo, the annual showcase for start-ups, where last year he blogged live. (His advice ranged from "Don't praise your own product" to "Don't sing.") Since I aspire to someday get my own six minutes of fame on the Demo stage, all this is good to know.
As is the fact that only 4.2% of venture funding goes to women, a cheering fact I learned from Kirsten Osolind's blog. Osolind is the CEO of Re:invention, a marketing company in Chicago, and she bills her blog as "a toolbox for women-led businesses." An accurate statement, as were it not for reading about it on her blog, I wouldn't also be fantasizing about presenting at Springboard, a kind of Demo for women.
Next I checked in on the adventures of Tim Wolters, who's blogging the entire process of starting a company. Wolters mixes nuts and bolts like why he's incorporating in Delaware and what kind of calendar software his team is using with items like a Letterman-style "Top 10 Indicators You've Just Founded a Start-up Company." (No. 5: When someone asks you a question that doesn't have to do with your new start-up, you respond with "Huh?") A few weeks ago, he blogged about a piece of idea-mapping software called FreeMind; I'm now using it to create flow charts for my patent attorney.
Note to self: Take a lot of cookies, kiss a lot of frogs.
Joe Kraus, the original president of Excite, is also blogging his new start-up. Kraus posts only every couple of months, but he's generally one of the best at capturing the haphazard synergies that make a start-up successful, as well as some fine, loony moments along the way. (You meet Bill Gates for the first time at a urinal. Question: Do you offer to shake hands? Answer: No, but you wish you had.) In a post reflecting on the benefits of making unexpected connections, Kraus begins by quoting his wife's grandmother's advice: "Take a cookie when they're passed." He then traces how a cup of coffee with the writer Robert X. Cringely led to another encounter, and another, and finally to the individual who funded his company. Note to self: Take a lot of cookies, kiss a lot of frogs.
The blogosphere is a vast, anonymous, and surprisingly intimate place inhabited by all manner of exotic creatures--or is it just that blogging brings out the exotic in people? From Hornik's official bio I know that he has a degree in computer music from Stanford and another in criminology from Cambridge, and earned his J.D. from Harvard, magna cum laude. But from his blog posts I know that he has a thing for sumo wrestling, and that his 9-year-old dressed up as Danny Zuko from Grease for Halloween.
In an age when everyone is talking about information overload, this may seem like more than one wants or needs to know about any total stranger, but I find quite the opposite: This is exactly the kind of information that helps me decide whom I really want to listen to. Yesterday I decided to contact a possible software engineer for my company based solely on a joke he posted about mad cow disease, to wit: "Why are the cows so mad?"
It's still true that there's nothing quite like face time. I once had the privilege of interviewing Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, for a magazine article I was writing. It was one of the most influential hours of my life, even though she was in typically guarded talking-to-the-press mode. The experience was a bit like an audience with the pope--i.e., it's not about what you talk about. But face time also has its limitations. In my last job, I was often approached by young people wanting advice at the outset of their careers. I was always willing to sit down with them, but I was guarded during these coffee-shop encounters, as one naturally is during a one-time, 15-minute conversation with a stranger.
For me, a woman who didn't graduate from Stanford and doesn't live in Silicon Valley, reading blogs by other entrepreneurs provides unexpected access to a virtual peer group.
It's done the same for a lot of small-business owners. A friend turned me on to a blog by a mother-daughter team who operate the Cracked Cauldron, a bakery in Oklahoma City. Aside from posting snapshots of yeast formulas as if they were baby pictures, the owners have blogged their personal journey, freely discussing how they used to be homeless and what led them to want to start a bakery. They didn't have any expectations when they began their blog, but through it they found a retail space, connected with suppliers, attracted customers, and started correspondences with other entrepreneurs from as far away as Ghana.
I always thought the term cyberspace was a bit strained. As wondrous as the Net has proved to be, I never bought that it was really a space. To me it was just another medium, a means of transmitting things. Your basic webpage isn't different from a page in a magazine or catalog, and bulletin boards and chatrooms are somehow always too linear to be truly dynamic. EBay is often touted as a community, but I've logged many eBay hours and bought a lot of kitschy lamps without ever feeling that I was doing anything other than shopping in my pajamas.
But I now feel that there is a "there" there. As soon as I grew comfortable navigating my way through the complexities of the blogosphere, I realized that I was beginning to find my way back to the same places over and over again. I was mingling, networking, unconsciously working the room as if at a cocktail party. An extremely large cocktail party unbounded by either space or time and to which everyone is invited.
And speaking of the interesting people you don't meet at cocktail parties, I've never had the good fortune to correspond in space and time with Warren Buffett, but today I'm planning to spend my afternoon reading his collected letters to shareholders. These letters aren't published, but Buffett has given bloggers permission to circulate them privately. I got them from Brad Feld, a managing director at Mobius Capital who doesn't know me from Adam but whose blog I like in part because we both like Harlan Coben novels and the TV show 24. As one who grew up on the mythology of six degrees of separation, this still feels like magic to me. Now, if only Buffett had his own blog....