Functional Versus Strategic Meetings on Zoom

Like a lot of people, I’m stuck on Zoom for most of the day, although I’ve tried to mix in some regular phone call meetings – even when Zoom would be available – just to give me a break from time to time. I’ve found that Zoom works reasonably well for functional meetings and for information sharing / webinar-style meetings. When I say “functional meetings”, I mean executive team meetings, check-ins, and board meetings – ones that are fairly informational and have a relatively set agenda, but likely the kind of meetings that you have on a regular basis (weekly or monthly).

However, when I’ve held meetings that were more strategic in nature – such as open-ended planning meetings and those to talk about general strategy – they haven’t translated to Zoom very well. These meetings tend to run longer and I’ve struggled with video conferencing as the medium because it feels like there’s something missing – the body language in the room is hard to read and it seems easy to lose people’s attention, even from the very start. I find it’s even easy for me to lose attention in this setting and stay fully engaged. It’s harder to follow the more open ended conversations that “strategy” meetings lend themselves to and it’s just harder to stay engaged. This isn’t “Zoom fatigue” – that’s real and I definitely feel it many days – but something else.

I’m wondering if other people have noticed this and if anyone has any ideas for ways to improve that dynamic. We’re all stuck on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which had been working great for more functional meetings. But as we at Foundry have moved from tactical meetings related to Covid/PPP/our weekly Monday meetings to planning meetings (portfolio reviews and in particular our quarterly off-sites that we’ve been doing since the start of Foundry), they’re just not translating as well to Zoom. Bring remote has had many advantages in terms of productivity (no travel, no driving to/from work, lots of focused time) but there are plenty of draw-backs and this is a big one in my world.

If you have ideas and suggestions for ways to counter these issues, please weigh in – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Make Juneteenth Meaningful

I’ve always been aware of Juneteenth but I’ve never done anything in particular to mark it. I’m sorry about that and it’s not something I’m proud of. For me and clearly for a lot of other people this is changing. I hope it can be a part of what perhaps – finally – will be a movement to change the way people of color, and specifically black people, are treated in our country.

I found this reflection on Juneteenth from Daria Hall particularly poignant. It’s short but worth reading if you have a moment. There are many other authentic voices online today talking about what the holiday means to them who are worth listening to as well.  “There are deep parallels between the delay of democracy and emancipation reaching Black people in 1865 and the Black experience today, ” as Hall writes in her piece.

I don’t know what you’re doing today. Actually, maybe I do – I’ve watched too many people on Twitter and other platforms fall all over themselves to show how suddenly woke they are to something that has been celebrated in one way or another for almost 150 years. I hope you’ll make today about more than a personal social media moment.

I don’t care what you do today, but I hope it will be meaningful. Juneteenth isn’t just about a day in the calendar. It’s about the actions we take the other 364 days of the year to create meaningful change in our society. If we’ve learned anything new over the past few weeks since George Floyd’s murder, its that this change is too long in coming. And long overdue.

A Few Days

This last weekend, I took the weekend off along with a half-day on Thursday and a full day on Friday. I called it a mini-vacation and it was fantastic. I turned off email and (for the most part) social media and enjoyed some digital free time. Like many of you, I’ve been running hard the past few months. Long days, working weekends, etc. Spring break was skipped and we’re running headlong into summer. At some point we all need to take a moment, ideally a few, and recharge. A week off right now felt like a step too far, so I decided to start with a smaller step. It was a good reminder both of how needed it was as well as about the importance of taking what you can.

I was talking about this with a group of CEOs on Monday when I was back. We had a good conversation not just about the importance of their each getting a break, but also about how to encourage people throughout their organizations to recharge. As part of this discussion we also talked about summer planning and how they’re approaching the summer schedule in general and encouraging employees to get some vacation time in, even if the lock-downs prevent them from venturing far from home. I was encouraged that a number had already communicated to their teams a handful of different workflows for the summer. Some were experimenting with Fridays off for a month or 6 weeks. Others were instituting half day Fridays for the full summer. Most were talking about digital free weekend days (in some cases full weekends) where Slack and email were strongly discouraged across the company (meaning that everyone was offline at the same time and where this was a shared expectation across the entire org – days to unplug, which used to be what we used weekends for without having to give/get permission).

These pauses are so important for both mental and physical health. Even if we can’t take traditional vacations with travel right now, there are opportunities to get outside and hike, go camping (even if it’s in your backyard) to break the routine and monotony of the past couple of months. I’d encourage you to think about it for yourself and for your team or organization.

Enough

I’m not entirely sure where to begin, so let me start with stating what should be obvious:

Black Lives Matter

That we can’t seem to agree on this in America is 2020 makes me some kind of mixture of sad, angry, screaming, crying, depressed. But how I feel and what I think isn’t important. In fact as a white person, especially a white man, my “feelings” are and should be beside the point. It’s the experience of black people that matters and they are experiencing racism daily. I don’t know what it’s like to have to think twice before going out for a jog. Or getting into my car. Or taking a stroll in a park. I get to take that for granted because of the color of my skin and the privilege it brings.

From my vantage point there was a moment in time about a decade ago when it felt like racism was for the most part going away (the talk of a “post-racial” society). It never was and my perspective was from the lily white perch of my privileged existence. Had I even bothered to ask my friends of color I would have known this to be the case. I know many other white friends who felt this way as well. We were not only wrong, it allowed us to lull ourselves into a sense of complacency.

Donald Trump is a racist. But he is a symptom of our problem, not the cause of it. He is incompetent. He takes every opportunity to divide us as a country and he openly and clearly encourages racists among us (can we stop saying “dog whistle” – there’s nothing subtle about his words or his actions – he’s a bull horn to racists). He must be voted out in November. But getting rid of Donald Trump doesn’t get rid of racism and more fundamental changes need to be made to our policing system, law enforcement more broadly (the prosecutors, jurys and others who have proven to be powerless to act in the face of police officers time and time again turning to murder as an outlet for their anger or incompetence), our criminal justice system and the systemic incarceration of black men. Our society has become more and more unequal and less and less compassionate and caring. We’ve lost ourselves as a nation.

I have some ideas on how to be a part of the solution. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option (and I believe doing so makes you a part of the problem – the cops in Minneapolis who stood by while their colleague murdered an innocent black man last week were not bystanders, they were accessories to his murder). But I think that’s for another post. This one isn’t about telling people what to do or how to feel.

It’s to say simply that Black Lives Matter.

To the many who are suffering and hurting, I’m sorry. I won’t pretend to know how you’re feeling. But I do know that we can and must make meaningful changes. Enough.

Uncertainty

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the relationship between uncertainty and mental health. Specifically, it’s well-documented that uncertainty drives significant anxiety. This is logical on many levels but what I didn’t realize is just how deep-seated it is. In a time when there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty, I think this is something that everyone needs to take a step back and understand. Even people who haven’t lost jobs, don’t have loved ones impacted by COVID, and whose kids are doing well in online school are affected.

Uncertainty provokes a kind of “fight or flight” response in the human brain. As we try to escape the idea of uncertainty, we analyze a situation in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, we worry in order to eliminate uncertainty and reassure ourselves. Frequent worry can lead to anxiety or depression and some individuals are more susceptible to it than others. It turns out that if you’re particularly vulnerable to uncertainty, you’ll have a heightened reaction to it in the same way someone who is allergic to a bee sting will react to that. For some people, it’s just a nuisance and for others, it’s more threatening. People who don’t tolerate uncertainty well fall prey to needing constant reassurance, procrastination, double-checking everything, and needing to do everything themselves all of which exacerbates the initial problem and leads to more worry and anxiety.

The future is always uncertain and we cannot prepare for every possible outcome so tolerating some level of uncertainty in our lives is essential. Establishing healthy routines (eating, sleeping, activity), staying present, and avoiding isolation are all good tactics for maintaining your mental health. Another is to focus on what can be done versus all of the unknowns. Obviously in this time of incredible uncertainty (work, life, kids, summer plans, camp, school in the fall, family, loved ones that are vulnerable, did I already have Covid, etc.) this becomes even more important.

I’ve been trying to think about how to apply these ideas to work and to life and looking for places where I can help reduce uncertainty for myself and for others. There are not a lot of things right now that we have real control over but this has led to decisions such as the one I posted recently about Foundry keeping its office closed until September. It’s a small thing but it allows everyone at Foundry to make plans and at least have more certainty in this one thing.

I’d encourage you to consider this for your own life. Especially for those readers (CEOs, managers, etc.) who are in a position to make seemly small moves that could remove uncertainty in the lives of those around them that could actually be very meaningful.

Working Remotely – Extending WFH

A few weeks ago, I posted that Foundry had made the decision to remain out of the office until at least June 1st. We’re fortunate that we’re in the position to work effectively this way – because of the kind of work we do and the way our company is set up (not to mention that we’re a team of 14). While we miss seeing each other, we felt it was safer to keep everyone at home.

I’d actually been thinking for months before the crisis about the changing nature of work and had intended to write a post titled something to the effect of, The Future of Work Is Remote – a trend that I thought would be accelerated when some famous remote tech companies such as Automatic (a parent company of WordPress) went public and the world could see just how productive and effective a fully remote workforce could be (wish I had written that – would have been a great reference point right now). In our own portfolio, we have a few companies that are primarily remote – TeamSnap and Help Scout come to mind, as examples. There are many across the portfolio and almost all have some remote workers or at least a satellite office. Most of these “remote” companies also have a main office of some kind that at least a subset of their employees comes to. But often that office is laid out more like a co-working space than a traditional office, allowing for more flexibility for how it is used. One of the main advantages of remote work is that you can hire the best employee for any role, not just the employee that happens to be in your town. This was a huge advantage when the job market tightened and talent for specific positions got tight and we saw companies who were more flexible about remote work be able to take advantage of individual contributors across the country and across the world.

Of course, now many people are talking about working remotely and how the experience of forced WFH because of Covid will have lasting effects on how companies organize their physical relationship to their employees. Fred Wilson from Union Square wrote an interesting post about the future of work last week, which was particularly thoughtful.

For Foundry, we have decided that we are not going to reopen the office until at least Labor Day (that date could move out but it won’t move up). We concluded that this was the safest thing to do and felt like we wanted to eliminate some uncertainty for our staff (more on the topic of uncertainty soon – in a time of uncertainty around just about everything in our lives, providing some amount of certainty, even about something as simple as when employees will asked to come back to the office, can make a big difference). We also felt that this extended period would give us the chance to lean into work at home. As one of our portfolio CEOs said on a recent call, “You can either become world-class in working from home or world-class in creating a safe work environment. It feels like the better thing is to focus on the former.” I totally agree with this sentiment and we felt unprepared to create an office environment that would be fully safe for our staff. But we did know we had the structures in place to be very effective working from home and to continue that for a long period. To be sure of that we did a few things to make sure that everyone was well set up, such as giving everyone a budget to make sure their home office environment was as productive as possible and paying for internet access. Most importantly, we’ve put in place business structures, communication plans, and a regular cadence of stand-ups that allow us to stay connected (in some ways, more effectively than when we were all in the office together).

Obviously, not all businesses have this ability and many businesses need some or all of their employees in an office either to access specialized equipment and machinery or because of the nature of their business. But for those businesses that are able, we would encourage you to consider setting a date for returning to the office that is well in the future to provide some certainty for your staff and to keep the pressure off of the system as states start to open up.

Join Me Thursday for a Business Town Hall with Rep Joe Neguse

 

Sorry for the short notice but I’ve been working with Rep Joe Neguse (CO 2) to put together a Business Town Hall this Thursday, May 21st at 11:00MT.

Joe’s been a real champion of small business (in particular minority and women-owned businesses) and I’m really glad that he’s agreed to do this.

Joe has been one of the most available Congressmen during his time in office holding over 24 town hall events in his first year in Congress alone. 

Frances Padilla from the Small Business Administration Colorado will offer some thoughts on the call as well (she heads the SBA in CO and is super thoughtful). It’s a great chance to connect with him about the both the CO response to COVID-19 as well as the federal programs that have been put in place.

You can register for the event here.  This isn’t a fundraiser, just a chance to hear from Joe directly about the response to the crisis. I hope you can join us.

An Update on The Colorado Talent Network

We launched the Colorado Talent Network on March 26 in direct response to Coloradans losing their jobs due to COVID-19 layoffs. To date, over 650 people have signed up and created a profile to gain more visibility with companies hiring. Since the launch, we’ve added the ability for employers to add open positions and job seekers to browse the 35+ companies actively hiring. We also decided to open this up beyond just the startup community adding professional backgrounds such as: Banking, CleanTech/Energy, Credit Unions, Education, Entertainment, Hospitality, Restaurant, Retail, and Other for those not captured.
While we don’t have the systems to track everyone on the list, we do know that many have found employment (note that we do track as we ask every 45 days whether they’d like to keep their listing live) and know that a number have been found jobs through their participation in the Network, which is fantastic.
For those that are frequent readers, you know I love diving into data. I tweeted a screenshot of the backgrounds of people in the group last month (when we had ~300 people) but wanted to reflect on some stats about the make-up of folks in the Talent Network now that we’ve hit a critical mass.
Backgrounds of people in the Talent Network:
The backgrounds are fairly well spread out between job functions. This is not particularly surprising as we know companies have had to make reductions across their entire teams.
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Experience level of people in the Talent Network:
80% of people in the network are entry level to middle level managers. Only 20% were at the director or executive level.
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Where people are looking to work:
No surprise that ~60% of selected Boulder/Denver as their ideal work location. ~25% are open to working remotely (no surprise there). I would like to highlight the ~17% that are looking for jobs outside Boulder/Denver metro area. These locations are: Central CO I-70 Corridor, Colorado Springs, Eastern CO, Ft. Collins, Southern CO, Western Slope and a few others.
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This is the same ideal work location data shown another way:
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If you’re a company hiring, check out the Colorado Talent Network Database for a list of candidates and please fill out this form to add a specific job posting or career page.
If you are a job seeker looking for your next role, you can add yourself to the talent list here.
You can learn more about the Colorado Talent Network here.

Social Distancing or Social Distrust

I was at the grocery store the other day and thankfully most people were wearing masks (a big change from a few months ago when I was literally laughed at when I wore a mask to that same story, early on in the crisis). However, walking around, people’s body language really struck me. In our efforts to socially distance, we are going out of our way to stay away from each other. That’s exactly what we should be doing, but I felt like there was almost a veneer of distrust and mistrust between people. What people are thinking is made harder to understand because everyone’s facial expressions are hidden behind their masks. Is that person smiling at me or growling as I gave them space coming off the end of an isle? Did they hear my muffled voice say something kind as we passed or did I come off as mad?

It’s a good idea to consider that as we’re distancing from everyone in our lives except for members of our own household, it’s important to maintain the social ties and graces that keep us bonded together as a society. I’m not talking about zoom happy hours with your friends. I’m talking about how we treat strangers when we do find ourselves out and about.

The other day, my wife was at a different grocery store, talking to someone in the long line to check out (long in part because people were appropriately distancing). She described people eyeing her suspiciously, just for talking – as if we’re not supposed to be interacting in any way.

Let’s not lose our humanity in this. There are so many examples of people being generous with their time, energy, or money during this time of crisis, which is fantastic. But it’s also important in our day to day interactions that we do not lose a sense of our communities and connectedness to each other, even if we cannot be in close physical proximity.

Circular Advice from the SBA

Quick preface to this note. I’m not your lawyer and I’m not giving legal advice. 

As I wrote about at the beginning of the week, the SBA has made a mess of the Payroll Protection Program. Yes, there are some challenges to parts of the structure of the program, but I was referring in that post to the SBAs implementation of the program and the varied guidance they’ve given since the program’s launch. They have been inconsistent, unclear and sometimes contradictory to statements made by Treasury and administration officials. It’s led to confusion on the part of companies who applied (or were thinking of applying) and ultimately to greater loss of jobs as companies struggled to understand whether they qualified or not. I can tell you from the board rooms that I’ve been in (virtually, of course) that people are genuinely trying to understand the intent and do the right thing, even if turning down the money meant that they needed to lay off or furlough some workers to keep costs in check.

Last week the SBA said it would offer further guidance before May 14th and many companies postponed or agreed to revisit decisions about the loan program once that guidance came out. The assumption had been that the SBA would offer further clarification about the “economic necessity” threshold that was prescribed in the original program language as well as a further update to its FAQ question #31, which stated that companies needed to consider “their ability to access other sources of liquidity sufficient to support their ongoing operations in a manner that is not significantly detrimental to the business.” (I wrote about this at length in my post on the PPP’s challenges earlier this week).

Yesterday – May 13th, one day before the SBA’s “safe harbor” deadline (the date that they had previously said that companies needed to return the money if they felt subsequent guidance disqualified them and be essentially absolved of any wrongdoing) – the SBA released their new “guidance” and updated their FAQs related to the program (the SBA maintains a single document for this – when they update it, they simply tack on the new guidance to the end).

The wait was not worth it.

I assumed that the SBA would offer thoughts on “economic necessity” such as how many months of runway a company might have, above which they would generally be deemed not to have necessity. Or perhaps would suggest a threshold for how much revenue, bookings or other key metrics of a business might need to be down in order to qualify. Or even just a general view about how companies should consider the overall future economic impact of Covid (can we even look to the future in making our determination of need, for example). Certainly they would address the question about “other sources of liquidity”.

But they did not. They waited until the day before their deadline and ultimately added little in the way of guidance. In fact they appear mostly to have repeated what had already been said and on a few key points backtracked completely. The key FAQ related to the economic necessity question read as follows. I added the emphasis.

46. Question: How will SBA review borrowers’ required good-faith certification concerning the necessity of their loan request?

Answer: When submitting a PPP application, all borrowers must certify in good faith that “[c]urrent economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the Applicant.” SBA, in consultation with the Department of the Treasury, has determined that the following safe harbor will apply to SBA’s review of PPP loans with respect to this issue: Any borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.

SBA has determined that this safe harbor is appropriate because borrowers with loans below this threshold are generally less likely to have had access to adequate sources of liquidity in the current economic environment than borrowers that obtained larger loans. This safe harbor will also promote economic certainty as PPP borrowers with more limited resources endeavor to retain and rehire employees. In addition, given the large volume of PPP loans, this approach will enable SBA to conserve its finite audit resources and focus its reviews on larger loans, where the compliance effort may yield higher returns.

Importantly, borrowers with loans greater than $2 million that do not satisfy this safe harbor may still have an adequate basis for making the required good-faith certification, based on their individual circumstances in light of the language of the certification and SBA guidance. SBA has previously stated that all PPP loans in excess of $2 million, and other PPP loans as appropriate, will be subject to review by SBA for compliance with program requirements set forth in the PPP Interim Final Rules and in the Borrower Application Form. If SBA determines in the course of its review that a borrower lacked an adequate basis for the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request, SBA will seek repayment of the outstanding PPP loan balance and will inform the lender that the borrower is not eligible for loan forgiveness. If the borrower repays the loan after receiving notification from SBA, SBA will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies based on its determination with respect to the certification concerning necessity of the loan request. SBA’s determination concerning the certification regarding the necessity of the loan request will not affect SBA’s loan guarantee.

This is a lot of words to basically about-face on much of the bluster coming from Treasury while offering no real guidance on the key questions I described above. Basically the SBA is saying that loans of less than $2M will be deemed to be requested in good faith and won’t be reviewed. Except in the 3rd paragraph they say that some smaller loans will actually be reviewed (“other loans as appropriate”). Although the document is inconsistent, it does seem appropriate to at least hold out the threat that some smaller loans will be reviewed (certainly some will have not been made in good faith or even been fraudulent; in fact likely at a higher rate than larger loans).

The real action is in the last paragraph. Here the SBA surprised pretty much everyone by basically saying “we’ll review your loan and if we think you didn’t qualify the penalty will be making you pay it back.” This essentially extends the safe-harbor they already offered (which required companies to pay back a loan in order to qualify). There’s some grey area there, because in theory some other agency could take up enforcement action against a company that didn’t return the money prior to May 14th, but this seems like an unlikely scenario. To be clear, companies that take the money and they are required later to pay it back (but who in the meantime kept people employed and spent the money in ways they wouldn’t have if they had never taken it in the first place) are on the hook for the cash, so there are real consequences to getting it wrong. But for many companies on the bubble the consensus seems to be that they should take the money, apply for forgiveness (which will trigger a review of the loan, per the new guidance) and let the SBA decide if they qualified or not. It’s hard to argue with that logic given this new guidance. Especially because it appears the money in the program is not going to run out quickly (and therefore the argument that one company is effectively taking money from another company that didn’t get their loan application in as quickly is gone).

Personally, I was hoping for more. We’ve tried to be thoughtful in our approach to the PPP program and the SBA’s guidance. But with this latest round of advice, it’s hard to argue that companies on the margin shouldn’t lean on the SBA to arbitrate whether they qualified or not and stop their board level arguing. I know of a number of companies that had decided to return the loan but reversed course because of this new guidance, or who were on the fence waiting for the new guidance and have now agreed to keep the money and let the SBA weigh in directly.

Perhaps this is exactly what the SBA wanted, but at least for me it was far less in terms of “guidance” than I was hoping for.