I TOOK THIS PHOTO OF BRIAN SPALY, FIRST PHOTO OF BONOBOS ON MODEL I AM AWARE OF

Tinker Don’t Talk

There’s this wonderful scene in the fictitious movie The Social Network when Zuck says to the Winklevii:

If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

There’s then this incredibly well-written, fantastical follow-up, where the attorney for the Winklevii asks Zuck if they have his attention. To which Zuck replies:

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

When I saw this (highly fictitious) scene, I thought of my cofounder Brian Spaly.

It’s one of the twists of history that it appears — because I’m still here — that I’m the original founder of Bonobos.

I’m not, Brian is.

And while we are at Stanford, he was an entrepreneur while I was a wannabe.

You see what entrepreneurs do is they make a product and commercialize it.

What wantrepreneurs do is they talk a lot about starting a company, with anyone who will take a meeting with them, but they never actually build anything.

It’s why MBA’s typically make crap founders. We want to do things like take meetings, write presentations, and build models. Those are things that bankers and consultants do. Those are things that I did while I was in business school.

It turns out those are not things that founders do.

Entrepreneurs identify a problem or an opportunity, they invent a product to address it, and they then commercialize that product.

Brian couldn’t find pants that fit. He did some lean research and found that a lot of other guys have the same problem. He made pants that did. While many people like me were talking about starting companies we never started, Brian sold some $30,000 worth of pants to our classmates.

While Brian was too busy selling his pants to take any meetings, I was still talking about an idea I had called Readeo. I was a wantrepreneur.

In fact, I was talking about it for months and months and months, and yet I never actually made a product. Readeo was going to be an amazing discovery platform for great reading and writing. It never got off the ground because I never did anything entrepreneurial about Readeo. I wrote a business plan and failed miserably at recruiting a technical cofounder. I got way more feedback than I needed relative to what I had, which was nothing. I never built a prototype.

Luckily in spite of my ineptitude, it now exists. Six years later, someone made it. And they made it better than I could ever have conceived.

It took two things to make it:

  1. An inflection point in the market called Twitter: a built-in distribution platform to announce new content from writers to relevant and engaged readers.
  2. A focus on writers first and readers second: prioritizing the content producers over the content recipients in the user experience of the product.

That second thing I would never have thought of. That took a genius. And that genius also happens to have co-invented the first thing. As for the name Readeo? Well the founder has a better name for it, and it’s not Readeo or Writeo. He calls it something else:

Medium.

And so I dedicate this post to both Brian Spaly and Ev Williams, two of the most amazing founders I know.

Without Ev, we wouldn’t have a medium called Medium to reach so many people so quickly. We also wouldn’t have Twitter to publish my Medium stories to people that might want to read them.

Without Brian, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. You taught me how to be a founder. As they say in that great anti-drug campaign:

I learned it from watching you.

You showed me the creative genius required to invent something.You gave us all a gift — our customers, our team, our shareholders — with this brand.

When you left, you did so with grace and dignity, and more than a few 50/50 Ricky’s at Diablo. I know it wasn’t easy for you to walk away, that it’s probably still not easy being gone.

From you I learned that you show a lot how much you care about something by how you leave it. From you I learned that one of the great acts of love is letting go — to care more for something than you do for yourself. It is something all great parents and great founders eventually must do.

I thought the year you left was going to be the hardest year at Bonobos. It wasn’t. The next year was, because I had to replace you. And replacing you was almost impossible. I hope I did okay.

Since you left, you have built this. You let your actions in building Trunk Club demonstrate that you’re not just a founder, you’re also a CEO.

Most importantly, you taught me this:

Watch what people do not what they say.

From starting the company to leaving it to what you’ve done since, you let your actions do the talking. And when it came to starting Bonobos, you didn’t talk much. You did something much better:

You tinkered.

Next Story — The Emerging V-Commerce Encyclopedia
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The Emerging V-Commerce Encyclopedia

The goal of this encyclopedia is to create a compendium of V-Commerce brands. If you’d like to be added, add your brand in the notes or please comment. For purposes of this list, it might be good to observe a $1m run-rate min.

A

AdoreMe
Aloha
Allbirds
American Giant

Away
AYR

B

Beltology
Bevel
BlackMilk
Bonobos
The Bouqs
Brilliant Bicycle
Brosa
Bucketfeet

C

Casper
Chubbies
Combatant Gentleman
Cotopaxi
Cuyana

D

David Kind
Dollar Shave Club

E

Eloquii
Ernest Alexander
Everlane

F

Food52
Floyd
Frank & Oak

G

Glossier
Greats
Greycork

H

Harry’s
Honest Company
Hungry Root

I

Indochino
Interior Define

J

Jack Erwin
Jomers
Julep
JustFab

K

Koio Collective
Kopari Beauty
Kuiu

L

Ledbury
LOLA

M

M.Gemi
Mack Weldon
MM.LaFleur
MeUndies
Ministry of Supply
Mizzen & Main
Moment
Monica & Andy
MVMT Watches

N

Noble Brewer
Nootrobox

O

Ora
Outdoor Voices

P

Pact Coffee
Pact Underwear
Parachute

Paul Evans

Pinrose

Q

Quip

R

Raden
Ratio Clothing
Roka Sports

S

Shoes of Prey
Smart Bedding
Sole Bicycles
Snowe
Stance

T

Tea Collection
ThirdLove
Tieks
TomboyX
Tommy John
Tortuga
Tracksmith
Tuft & Needle

W

Warby Parker
Whipping Post

Originally, this encyclopedia called these brands Digitally-Native Vertical Brands, aka DNVBs. As this acronym was cumbersome according to a lot of people including Inc. Magazine, I awaited a better idea from the internet, and one came thanks to Dan Scinto. While it has also been used for virtual commerce, that never took off — so hopefully it sticks here. Thanks Dan.

Next Story — What’s V-Commerce? Only the Future
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What’s V-Commerce? Only the Future

Vertical Commerce brands are up next in commerce

A V-Commerce brand, or digitally native vertical brand (DNVB), meets four criteria:

  1. It’s primary means of interacting, transacting, and story-telling to consumers is via the web — desktop and mobile. In almost all cases the V-Commerce brand is born digitally.
  2. It’s a brand, and that brand is vertical. The name of the brand is on both the physical product and on the website. It requires the commercialization of an e-commerce channel, but that channel is an enablement layer, it’s not the core asset. It’s not E-Commerce, it’s V-Commerce.
  3. The V-Commerce brand is usually maniacally focused on customer experience and on customer intimacy. The experience tends to be three-part bundle of physical product, web/mobile experience, and customer service that collectively become the brand in the consumer’s imagination.
  4. While born digitally, the V-Commerce brand rarely ends up digital only. This means the brand can extend offline, eventually. Usually its offline incarnation is through its own experiential physical retail or highly selective partnerships. In nearly all cases of partnerships, the brand controls its external distribution versus being controlled by it.

As an investor community, too often the V-Commerce brand is compared to a typical E-Commerce company. If a typical E-Commerce company is a frog, at birth a V-Commerce brand does look a lot like a tadpole. But it doesn’t end up as a frog. The difference is profound, and it requires an appreciation the role brand plays in inspiring people, speaking to them, and shaping their choices.

It also requires venture investors to look more closely at the downstream math of a V-Commerce company versus an third-party E-Commerce purveyor. That difference in the unit economics is so meaningful that you can hardly compare the businesses. Just because they both have LTV and CAC ratios does not mean they both have the same potential value to the consumer in the medium to long run. The third-party stories are flashier at first on the top-line (more brands!), but the long run winning strategy may well be more focus (building a brand monotheism). The E-Commerce company is a channel; the V-Commerce company is a brand.

Furthermore, while third-party E-Commerce requires you to compete against a grizzly bear called Amazon, creating a V-Commerce brand gives you an opportunity to combine the growth of being an E-Commerce company with the margins of being a brand, and with a proprietary selection of merchandise where you control distribution and your own destiny. Moreover, when done right, aka where there is some differentiation in the core physical product made possible by the V-Commerce nature of the model (and this is the key thing entrepreneurs get wrong in starting V-Commerce brands the world doesn’t need), the model enables a better experiential bundle than consumers have ever seen before. These V-Commerce brands can begin to turn entire industries on their head. This creates a brand loyalty impossible to create in the commoditized world of “channel.”

In the history of V-Commerce brands, it’s incredibly early. We are still in the first decade of a multi-century macro trend where retail is re-organizing from around the automobile to around the smartphone. Vertical brands were a huge part of the last era of retail (Zara, Ikea, Gap), aka the offline one, and now they become the driving story in the future of digital retail. The moving parts in the shifting retail landscape are right in front of us to see. What is not appreciated is that the best opportunities may accrue to entrants rather than existing players. The creation of the V-Commerce brand becomes a profound opportunity for investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers alike.

The $1B acquisition of Dollar Shave Club is just the beginning.

Next up: the encyclopedia of V-Commerce brands.

Originally, this article called these brands Digitally-Native Vertical Brands, aka DNVBs, exclusively. As this acronym was cumbersome according to a lot of people including Inc. Magazine, I awaited a better idea from the internet, and one came thanks to Dan Scinto. While it has also been used for virtual commerce, that never took off — so hopefully it sticks here. Thanks Dan.

Next Story — The Day Badi Mummy Died
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The Day Badi Mummy Died

Parkash Rani Ahuja, 1922–2016

Three years ago for Mother’s Day I wrote this tribute to my grandmother and the women in my family. It begins like this:

My Indian grandmother was born in what is now Pakistan ninety years ago. She was promised to be married at 11, married at 13, had her first miscarriage at 14, her second miscarriage at 15, her first child who passed away at 16, another child who passed away at 17, and then seven children who survived, the middle of whom is my mother.

This Mother’s Day we celebrate her passing on to the next life. This letter is my woefully inadequate tribute to her:

Dear Badi Mummy,

You came here to take care of me and so my mom could go back to work. You were a child bride yourself but you understood that women should have more independence than you did. You raised me like a second mother for some time, and then you went and did it again for our cousins.

Whenever you went to India, I asked you to bring back a gold elephant. You always did. I never connected the dots that the elephants were female. You were our matriarch and we revered you. We touched your feet each time we said goodbye. You must have known.

It’s sad that I didn’t acquire the language skills to understand the parts of your matriarchy that could be more, how do we say this, forceful. Turning over the cups in the pantry to be right side up versus wrong side down after my dad unloaded the dishwasher, admonishing him in Punjabi about the trapped water though he spoke only English.

While I couldn’t really understand you either, we shared an understanding. I always gathered that you loved me and that I should be good, work hard, eat a lot of roti, and know that I was loved. Recently I once asked you through my mom if you could go back in time and do life again if you would do it differently. As a deeply spiritual person I assumed you would say no, nothing different at all. What you said I’ll never forget:

I’d like to have been like my daughters and make some of their own choices. Maybe I would have gotten married at 25.

That’s a long way from 11. I read somewhere they are introducing anti-child bridge legislation in India this week. 88 years after you were born my niece was born, into a world of different choices. You predicted her birth would bring with it great fortune, and it did. She was born the same day as you, providence for all of us. She’s just three generations downstream from you, and yet she seems oceans and a time warp apart in terms of the opportunities in front of her.

In your life I see a vast bridge between a past where women make no choices to a future which looks remarkably brighter. We need only look at the maps of the world to see where this is becoming true and where it’s not yet true. In this look to my niece, I want to believe you mean this: it’s on us now. We will do our best to make you proud. Who would have thought a child bride could teach us so much about feminism.

In that same ‘interview’ I even asked you: what advice do you have for raising Bella? You told me this:

I don’t know. I raised you. Now you figure it out.

Gone at 93, hands clean from lotion every day, showering by yourself to the end, teeth and eyes and ears intact. That we might all live to old age, die of natural causes on our own terms, breathe our last breath with loved ones, and never once have moaned in pain. That we could all have your gratitude and reverence and stoicism and spirituality, through life and death.

I got to touch your feet once last time before you went while you still lived. Tears rolling down my face, I will always be grateful for that.

Indian culture teaches that there is a cycle of life. Your great granddaughter Bella, born on your birthday, is a symbol of just that. She claps when she blows out these birthday candles, but we all know who really did it.

Your five daughters ended up with high-powered jobs: a schoolteacher, two doctors, a physical therapist with her own practice, and a hospital department leader — my mother. You did a lot with the opportunity you were afforded. You taught us the power of spirit, of faith, of infectious positive energy, and of a mixture of daily asceticism, pragmatic routine, and spartan living. It brings to bear the question of who was more ‘educated,’ let alone who is more enlightened.

We love you. Though with you gone now I believe that isn’t exactly the point. I think the point is that you loved us, and taught us what it meant to love and be loved.

We will never forget your incredible laugh.

My only wish is we could go back to that cold Chicago day in the 1980’s, at the Burlington Coat Factory, and that we could find you that purple coat faster. We tried so many on. We didn’t know many years you would still wear it, what good care you would take of it, and of all of us.

Parkash Rani Ahuja

Born: November 22, 1922 in Rawalpindi, Punjab province, what is now Pakistan.

Emigrated to New Delhi, India, moving through many cities, 1947–1952 at the time of partition. Our mom was born in 1949 on the refugee trail.

Came to the US in 1976 to care for my sister and emigrated to the United States in 1985 to live with my family before settling in Valparaiso to care for our cousins.

Died: May 6, 2016 in Valparaiso.

Next Story — We Will Never Be Satisfied
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Renee Elise Goldsberry as the wise older sister Angelica Schuyler

We Will Never Be Satisfied

How ‘Hamilton’ Makes America Great Again

Okay so I am obsessed with Hamilton. It may not be just the best musical I’ve ever seen. It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen. It kind of breaks the genre, like how Jordan broke basketball, Beethoven broke classical music, and Cher broke Twitter.

By now you may know the drill: it’s the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton as told by Aaron Burr, the lifelong frenemy of Hamilton who ended up killing Hamilton in a duel. The musical is set to an incredible hip-hop driven score, and it stars a largely black and Latino cast. In so doing, it re-appropriates the story of our country’s founding and makes it less about a history particular to white men and more about a history of the ideas that belong to us all. When separated from its context and placed in ours, Hamilton’s story has a modern day hip-hop narrative arc:

Started from the bottom now we up

Watch for a reference in the opening song to just this sort of Drake-ism. The lyrical genius of Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not of this world. Well, it is of this world, in the way that Shakespeare and Tupac were of this world. The word and tonal play is unbelievable. It is confounding, it is inspiring — the references and the re-references taking you through back and forth through early American history, through the history of hip-hop and musicals, and back and forth within the musical itself. Your ears are peeled from start to finish, and even after dozens of listens I’m still checking Genius to pick up on things.

February 20th I went on the occasion of my 37th birthday. I came home and checked Lin-Manuel’s Twitter feed, which I creep nightly, and beamed with unmerited pride to discover I share that birthday with Angelica Schuyler, who was Hamilton’s wife’s sister. She would have been 260 this year and she is, for me, the show’s most wonderful surprise of a character. She sings a favorite verse, one star of many on a starry night:

So so so — 
So this is what it feels like to match wits
With someone at your level! What the hell is the catch? It’s
The feeling of freedom, of seein’ the light
It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite! You see it, right?
The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes
Ev’rything we said in total agreement, it’s
A dream and it’s a bit of a dance
A bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance. He’s a
Bit of a flirt, but I’m ‘a give it a chance
I asked about his fam’ly, did you see his answer?
His hands started fidgeting, he looked askance?
He’s penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants

This flying by the seat of his pants thing resonated, literally. The real man flying by the seat of his pants is Hamilton as played by Miranda, who is doing anything but. He’s the closest thing I’ve personally seen to a modern day musical and lyrical genius. It is his not his standalone capabilities in each genre he traverses, it is his mixture of talents that is other worldly. He’s at the center of the Venn diagram of two worlds which Stephen Jay Gould would have called ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’ Broadway and hip-hop. Really? Non-consensus and right.

Daveed Diggs, the man who plays both Lafayette and Jefferson, is a budding hip-hop star in his own right, and has more fun on a stage than anyone. The Incredible Oak, who plays Madison in part two, brings a guttural Wu-Tang like vibe to the first half. Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr anchors the whole thing, with a silky smooth ability to sing, rap, or chat as required. He is vocally a mixture of Drake, Nas and a blues singer, and his three tunes Wait For It, The Room Where it Happens, and Dear Theodosia are my top three plays on Spotify other than Satisfied by the indelible Renee Elise Goldsberry and Right Hand Man which introduces George Washington. The traditionalist vocals of Christopher Jackson as George Washington and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton are stunning in their own right — as much for the wisdom, integrity, soul, and judgment inherent in their performances as for their musical contributions. The comic levity of Groffsauce as King George III grounds the whole experience. He is the oppressor from afar, and provides a safe and slightly ironic home-base for the mostly older white audience to latch onto as recognizable with his old school pop-rock form.

It’s a crazily pricey ticket. For many, Spotify is the only option. That said I’ve heard plenty of people who I know can afford this experience improperly value it. Genius is expensive. It’s also incredibly rare to see a work of art performed by its creators, let alone one that will inspire us again, at a critical time, about what America can be. There won’t be many times in life where we get to see Beethoven perform the 9th. What would we pay to watch Shakespeare star as King Lear, or for one last time see Tupac to do the full end to end of All Eyez on Me?

Whether you go now, later or never, start listening. You’ll hear the voices of our founders. What they’re saying is this: America has always been about a fierce battle of ideas. When it happens, don’t say this isn’t America. Say it is.

Make America great again?

She was. She will be. She still is.

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