Tuesday, September 22, 2020

My Top 5 Podcasts for Entrepreneurs

Podcasts. They are everywhere — covering any and all imaginable interests of the people who produce
them. With just a quick search of the ITunes podcast library, I can, at the push of a button, learn about the "curious lives of beekeepers" or listen to the hosts of MuggleCast, a weekl
y ride into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, debate who is the best professor at Hogwarts. We joke that everyone and their mother has a podcast, but the amount of informative, curated content about whatever tickles your fancy accessible at our fingertips is a phenomenon not to be overlooked. 

Podcasts fit well into the busy lives of entrepreneurs, and as they build
their business(es), podcasts can provide incredible insights and advice about company expansion. Below is the definitive list (and by that I mean my own personal list which is by no means definitive) of the top 5 podcasts for entrepreneurs: 

Acquired. I will be honest, Acquired is far and away my favorite podcast on this list (which is why I list it first). While the others that follow are great sources of information and enjoyable listens, Acquired is truly a podcast to which I look forward. Acquired’s tagline is “Every company has a story.” And, the hosts, Ben and David, are incredible story tellers. Each episode is nearly two hours long and is packed full of history, personal anecdotes (both Ben and David are successful VC’s) and true insight into what makes some of the greatest tech companies and founders of our generation tick. Or, as my old college roommate, an early stage investor himself, so eloquently describes, “two dudes absolutely nerding-out about venture capital.” If you are looking for a great place to start, begin with the story of Uber, which, as told by the hosts, begins in the late 1800’s. A few teasers: the idea for Uber began with late nights partying and James Bond; Uber’s recent legal troubles stand in stark contrast to the early days of the company; and a certain VC, a lead investor in the company, had tried and failed to invest in the company many times prior. Just listen — you won’t regret it. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Twin Cities Startup “Week” in a Pandemic

Last week marked the beginning of Twin Cities Startup Week 2020, our annual celebration of local startups, founders and everyone who supports the Twin Cities entrepreneurial ecosystem. Usually, attendees can expect a jam-packed week of lunches, happy hours and networking events, interspersed with panel discussions, workshops and other events. This year, of course, is proceeding somewhat differently, with events spread out between September 7 and September 25, and being hosted all online. I guess it’s appropriate that in our COVID-19 universe a week lasts 18 days (at least many weeks feel like they last 18 days).  Get your tickets here!

As always, however, there are far too many events for even the most dedicated scheduler to possibly attend, even on an expanded timeline. Below, I’ve curated events that I’d recommend to one of my clients. Note: I’ve stayed away from specific technology areas — if you are working in AI, Edtech, Food & Ag, Healthcare or VR, take a look at the TCSW schedule here, where there are plenty of exciting opportunities. Instead, I’ve tried to focus on areas where any entrepreneur has the chance to get something valuable.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Zoom Fatigue

As the seasons change, it’s hard to believe that we’ve been living in pandemic mode for the last six months. Remember all those early quarantine trends from March like baking bread, binge-watching Tiger King, making whipped coffee to keep up with the TikTokers, and attending Zoom happy hours every night of the week? 

By now we’re all familiar with Zoom fatigue. Julia Skylar, in her National Geographic article, “Zoom Fatigue is Taxing the Brain,” observes that “video calls seemed an elegant solution to remote work, but they wear on the psyche in complicated ways.” She describes how a typical video call lacks significant non-verbal communication cues and leave participants feeling exhausted.

In a New York Times article, “Why Zoom is Terrible,” Kate Murphy explains that “psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already).” With so many drawbacks to video conferencing, Murphy actually prefers voice-only phone calls: “The absence of visual input might even heighten people’s sensitivity to what’s being said.” Despite all of the excitement of virtual happy hours, virtual business meetings, virtual classrooms, and virtual psychotherapy, she suggests “When it comes to developing intimacy remotely, sometimes it’s better to be heard and not seen.”

Friday, August 28, 2020

Epic Games’ Fortnite Takes on In-App Purchases

The stay at home orders instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in booms in a number of perhaps unexpected industries, including the video game industry. In May 2020, The Washington Post reported significant increases in subscribers to the Xbox Game Pass service, sales of Switch gaming consoles, users of gaming platforms, and viewers of gaming livestreams. Fortnite, the wildly popular online battle royale game developed by Epic Games, has provided some particularly astonishing metrics. An in-game concert by rapper Travis Scott broke records when 12.3 million players participated in the event concurrently. A couple of weeks later, Epic reported that players spent over 3.2 billion hours in the game in the month of April. 

Much of Fortnite’s popularity comes from its accessibility. The battle royale portion of the game is free to download and play, and can be played across gaming platforms including Xbox, PlayStation, PC, Mac, Switch, and both iOs and Android mobile devices. That is, until two weeks ago when Apple and Google blocked Fortnite from their respective stores, preventing mobile gamers from downloading or updating the application on their smartphones and tablets. Epic Games has now filed suit  against both companies, alleging that each holds unlawful monopoly power over the distribution of applications for their respective sets of mobile devices and is engaging in unfair competition.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Allen Kurzweil, Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for my Twelve-Year-Old Bully (Harper Books, 2015).

Sometimes you pick up a book out of mild curiosity and discover that it’s a whole lot more interesting than you thought it would be.

I expected this book would be a middle-aged man’s reflections about his childhood, perhaps an exploration of how painful experiences had laid the foundation for the wisdom that comes with age. There is this angle, sure, but even more interesting is the story within the story. The bully with whom the author tries to reconnect turns out in later life to have become the shill for a fraudulent international financing scheme that preyed on entrepreneurs who could not find financing to underwrite their dreams. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale for all of us.

The book focuses on the activities of the Badische Trust Consortium, which held itself out to be a 150-year-old private bank based in Switzerland and run by a committee composed of “European aristocrats capable of underwriting loans from $10 million to $500 million.” The author’s nemesis, who did business as a representative of “Barclay Global Investments” (confusingly close to Barclays Global Investors, a legitimate investment banking firm), would lure victims into the scheme. Preliminary meetings would be arranged at the New York offices of a premier Park Avenue law firm, which was duped into lending credibility to the Trust’s operations.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

A Trip to the Bike Shop and Reflections on Entrepreneurship

For many businesses, the past few months have been disastrous. However, the bike industry has seen a surge in sales and has projections for continued growth. Avoidance of public transportation, gym closures, and extended periods of being at home are some of the drivers of the sales boom.
I experienced this firsthand on my trip to a local bike shop during the spring and have been watching the spike in sales play out for several months. Needing some minor parts and accessories, I called the store to make sure they were even open. To my surprise, an employee said they might not be able to get me in that day because there was an hour and a half to two-hour wait just to get in the store!

Shocked by what I heard, I made my trip another day and came prepared with a camping chair and a book for while I waited in line. Sure enough, when I pulled into the parking lot, people were lined up outside. As I sat in my chair, I reflected on what the shop had done to capitalize on this opportunity and how those steps were applicable to entrepreneurs in any industry. While these points are nothing new, it’s important for entrepreneurs to recognize that while the climate of the business world has drastically changed over the past few months, the keys to success have not.

Monday, August 3, 2020

What’s in a Name?

The NFL team formerly known as the “Washington Redskins” recently announced that it would play the 20
20 season as the “Washington Football Team.”

After years of defending the “Redskins” name against claims that the mark was racially insensitive, and vowing to “never” change the name, the team owner reversed his steadfast position after the death of George Floyd in late May, when FedEx threatened to cancel its remaining payment obligations under its stadium naming rights contract if a change was not made. 

Given the timing of the decision, it shouldn’t be surprising that the team wants more time to select a new name. A name change of any kind is a big deal, but even more so with a professional sports team.

Teams often want the name to reflect something about the city or state that they represent (Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings), but may want to consider broader appeal if the name is to have value for a possible move or sale to another location (although that didn’t seem to prevent the New Orleans Jazz from becoming the Utah Jazz or the Minneapolis Lakers becoming the Los Angeles Lakers—even though Utah isn’t known for its jazz scene and there aren’t really any lakes in LA…). Fans appreciate a name that suggests strength or bravery (Pirates/Buccaneers, Lions, Bears), but want something unique that isn’t used by a half dozen high schools and colleges in every state (Eagles, Cardinals, Tigers, Wildcats). True fans of the team will remain loyal regardless of the name, but let’s face it, an interesting name and cool logo can’t hurt sponsorship revenue and merchandise sales. 

On the other hand, considering the lengthy controversy over the name, one would think that the team might have had something on the shelf. 

Pro-Football, Inc. is the owner of the Washington Football Team. Founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, the team was renamed the Boston Redskins in 1933, probably to avoid using the same name as Boston’s professional baseball team. In 1967, the team was issued its first U.S. trademark registration for its name, and went on to obtain additional registrations during the 1970’s including one for its logo of a Native American warrior. In 1990, the team was issued a registration for THE REDSKINETTES used for its cheerleading squad (which had at least stopped wearing black-braided wigs nearly 20 years prior to this registration). These registrations were granted in spite of long-standing trademark law barring the federal registration of “disparaging,” “scandalous,” and “immoral” marks. 

However, only two years after registering THE REDSKINETTES, a new application to register WASHINGTON REDSKINS for clothing and other merchandise was refused by the USPTO on grounds that the mark was disparaging of Native Americans. The USPTO’s refusal was issued on the heels of a petition filed by a group of Native Americans challenging the team’s existing registrations on grounds of disparagement. While this matter dragged on, a second group of Native Americans filed a petition to cancel the team’s registrations in 2006, which was put on hold pending a final decision regarding the prior 1992 petition which was now dragging through the federal court system. Finally, in 2009, after losing on appeal, the petitioners/plaintiffs on the first action were declined review by the Supreme Court. 

In 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), acting on the second (2006) petition ordered the cancellation of the Pro Football, Inc.’s six existing registrations (the 1992 application for a seventh registration was suspended pending these court/administrative proceedings). The TTAB decision was upheld by the federal district court, but was on appeal when in 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unrelated case (Matal v. Tam, regarding registration of the mark THE SLANTS for a rock band), ruled that the “disparaging” clause violated free speech protected by the First Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. With the Supreme Court ruling, the basis for the challenge to the Washington Redskins trademark registrations was gone, the registrations were reinstated, and the last application filed in 1992 was issued a registration in 2018.  

After more than 25 years of dispute, the team declared victory, but in an ironic twist, it was soon to find out that the mere right to register their marks would not make the public view the marks as any less disparaging. 

It is important to note that the Tam case, which determined disparaging marks were free speech and not to be denied trademark registration, did not address “scandalous” or “immoral” marks. That issue was addressed by the Supreme Court last year (Iancu v. Brunetti,, regarding registration of the mark FUCT – for “Friends U Can Trust” – for a clothing line). Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court followed its Tam decision and held that refusing registration of marks on grounds that they were scandalous or immoral would also violate First Amendment free speech. 
Out of curiosity, I did some non-scientific research in the USPTO records and could not discern any noticeable increase in applications for “disparaging” marks following the Tam decision, but there are more than a few recent applications that would clearly have once been considered “scandalous” or “immoral.” While it may be difficult to identify what may be disparaging, I thought a good start for scandalous marks would be George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”   All of these words can now be said on cable, and some are even reasonably common on network stations, but it is still surprising to see that they are being considered for brands.

If you think about doing your own research, I recommend you stick to the USPTO records. If you do a general browser search, you will plant cookies that attract ads you do not want to see.