Spend 2012 on the Right Side of the Haimish Line

Occasionally on this blog I break away from industry commentary and write more broadly. The first day of 2012 seems the perfect day to do so.

One of the most important articles I read during the entire year was David Brook’s op-ed article on “The Haimish Line.”

In it Brooks talks about his recent trip to Africa with his 12-year-old son. They stayed in some nice camps with showers & swimming pools and in some very basic camps without electricity or running water.

At the simpler camps his family interacted with all of the other guests – there was a certain bond – a warmth. At the nicer camps they had more luxury, comfort and space.

Sometimes a bit of each is in order. But what he noticed was much more happiness & many more memories were derived at the poorer camps where you interacted with people. He defined the difference between being at the two camps as “crossing an invisible haimish line,”

“[Haimish is] a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality”

I like that. He goes on to say,

“We live in a highly individualistic culture. When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights.

But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.”

So true.

And so I framed much of my life since reading the article in Haimish terms. Was I on the right side? What things made me happy? What luxuries were false comforts?

The more I reflected on what makes my truly happy the more I realized that I was happiest on the right side of the Haimish line even when it’s sometimes easier to sneak back over the the reclusive luxury side.

The great irony is that the more success you have in life the more likely you are to be pulled on to the wrong side of the Haimish line. You can fly first class and not talk to fellow passengers. You can stay in super exclusive hotels. You can have big offices and lavish houses.

Yet none of these things lead to the great feelings you get being amongst people of all walks and backgrounds. It is this reminder that helps me form my internal compass and not hide behind a fortress.

It’s why I still randomly meet up with people I’ve met on Twitter or this blog. It’s why I still go to after-conference parties and hang out until the end of the night with whomever wants to chat. It’s why I can still be caught playing beer (and tequila) pong at 4am at the Local Response offices.

And why I still made it to breakfast at 8.30am with Christina Cacioppo the next morning (although I’m not sure she found me too Haimish of a conversationalist that day ;-) ).

If you get a chance after you’re done with this post ;-) then please be sure to read Brook’s Haimish op-ed.

Examples in My Life & Work

SxSW
2011 was the first year I went to SxSW. I wrote about my experience in this post and why I enjoyed this event more than most. If you haven’t been and are considering it I highly recommend reading that post.

But summarizing what I liked most about SxSW? It lives on the right side of the Haimish line. Almost all of the people at SxSW are from out of town. They have very little “other business” in Austin as they would when the come to NYC, SF or LA. So many people just “hang out.”

The event seems to be more focused on 6pm – 3am than it does to people sitting and watching panels. I had so many casual meet-ups with random people that I wanted to spend quality time with, like Naval Ravikant and Farb Nivi. Like Steve Blank, Dave McClure, Dennis Crowley, Evan Cohen, Gary Vaynerchuk, John Price, Angelo Sotira and many, many more.

All of these people were publicly accessible and talking with just about anybody.

One of the biggest pleasures for me was just meeting all of the random people at food trucks at 2am like Joshua Cook from Gunderson Dettmer where we chatted over chicken-fried waffles served with syrup and hot sauce. Nom nom nom. Or riding a crazy party bus and sitting next to Aaron Batalion the co-founder & CTO of Living Social. Randomly.

Office Space
I always love visiting companies because you can tell so much about the character of the company by spending time in their offices. You get a feel for the company “vibe.” Do they all get along? Do they have a strong sense of culture? Do they seem to have fun?

Having a great work environment is tremendously important in attracting & retaining great employees and in getting teams to work well together. Teams that hang out together work more productively in difficult situations.

You find some offices where the CEO or senior team have cordoned themselves off. It’s an obvious temptation. As a founder you end up having to deal with a lot of sensitive information & discussions. You probably also value the concentration you can get from a bit more quiet and solitude. Cordon yourself off and you get dragged into a lot fewer problem-solving sessions for other people.

But doing so has many drawbacks. And I usually recommend against it.

One of my big disappointments at GRP has been our office space in Los Angeles. When you walk in it feels like a lawyer’s office.  Like we take ourselves a bit too seriously. I can’t really change it because we had a super long lease. But that expires soon and I hope to get back to the right side of the Haimish line. We’ll see.

TechStars Interactions
I refuse to go to demo days. Not just TechStars but any demo day, really.

Why? Well, I get nothing out of seeing how well a bunch of people can pitch their businesses on stage. You don’t get to know companies that way. It’s very artificial and contrived.

Yet I love TechStars. So I promised the guys that I would come and hang out with companies well before their demo days. Dave Tisch was kind enough to organize sessions for me in NY (little did I know in advance they would be filming it for a reality TV show on Bloomberg where I was cast as Simon Cowell ;-) )

I came and hung out with companies and got to know many 1-on-1. Some I still speak with.

And Nicole Glaros organized a full day and evening for me in Boulder. I did individual sessions with every single company. And then we busted out the ping pong table. And as anybody who was there will attest I summarily defeated every TechStars company handily.

They were lulled into a false sense of security by my gray hair ;-)

It wasn’t until David Cohen turned up that I got knocked off my mantle. And went home with bruised ribs from diving. I was too sheepish to tell my wife it was a ping pong injury. Creek.

Entrepreneur Dinners
One of my favorite things to do is to organize entrepreneur dinners when I travel. I usually ask somebody local who knows the local scene to invite out 10-15 local entrepreneurs who might be interested to meet up and I agree to pick up the tab.

What I love is that I don’t pre pick the companies. I don’t try to optimize for who might be a great investment opportunity or somebody that I really “should know.” In stead of just calling up buddies who live in the area or inviting out the most senior person in town that I know, I opt for random interactions.

Why?

The Haimish factor. I find no better way to get a feeling for local communities than to sit with a group of early-stage entrepreneurs and talking about the local scene. What is working, what isn’t? What are their projects? What is the local funding environment like?

I profiled one of these interactions from when I last visited Seattle.

Sure, it would probably be “easier” to just grab a friend and have a quiet dinner at a local posh restaurant. I like to do that sometimes, too.

But I prefer the crowd.

The Subway
I lived in London for nearly a decade. For the first few years I took the Underground everywhere. Over time as I became more senior at Andersen Consulting I had more resources to take taxis everywhere. For a few years I found myself constantly in taxis.

It was certainly more private. I probably caught less colds. But it was colder. After I started my first company I find myself back on the Underground. I love that feeling of being amongst random people. I love the people watching. I love imagining what all of their lives are like. What they do. Where they live. Who they are.

When I’m in New York City I almost always find myself taking the subway where possible. I feel more connected. I feel more at one with the city. I feel more Haimish.

Camp in Sequoia National Park
Every year I go with my family to a camp in the mountains of Sequoia National Park – it has become a family tradition.

The kids get to go hiking, water skiing, kayaking, sing camp fire songs, roast marshmallows, do a skit in front of a group, do archery, swim in a lake, make tie-dye t-shirts and even shoot rifles.

Mostly they get very dirty. Hang out with new friends. Spend lots of time with my wife & me. And we eat every meal together.

The accommodations are fine – certainly not The Four Seasons. Tania & I each do activities that we don’t get enough time to do during the year like mountain biking, rock climbing, water skiing and sunset hikes with spectacular views. And we also shot rifles! For suburban kids turned city-slickers I have to admit it’s a lot of fun.

The camp attracts people from many different backgrounds from NorCal and SoCal (there’s no easy airports so people don’t seem to come from out of state). But almost nobody asks what other people “do.” It barely comes up until late in the week.

We eat at tables together. We hike together. We sing silly songs together. We see each other every morning looking like a Mack Truck ran us over. Everybody talks. Everybody lets their hair down (and certainly doesn’t wash it).

It’s one of our highlights every year. And it’s very Haimish.

Launchpad LA
A few years ago I started a mentorship organization in Los Angeles called Launchpad LA now run by the uber talented Sam Teller.

As I alluded to in my post on our recent program in which we now invest $50,000 per company and have shared office space, Bill Gross (the founder of Idealab) was instrumental in convincing me to keep Launchpad LA running despite an over-abundance of local LA accelerators. He said:

I think that the more initiatives, the better … I think it’s the many initiatives and variety that make Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley and that we need to do more of that here.”

But one of the other major drivers that I discussed with all of the people with whom I sought counsel in the decision was The Haimish Factor.

Having been involved with 23 companies that had been through Launchpad LA in its first couple of years, I felt very close to these founders. I count most of them as personal friends. We hung out a lot together a dinners and educational events.

And as I said to my close friend Adam Lilling who helps run Launchpad LA

“I’d much rather sit in Launchpad’s offices and get to know 10 companies intimately than to constantly sit in a conference room in an artificial situation being constantly pitched by entrepreneurs where my job is to mostly say, ‘no.’

Getting to know a handful of entrepreneurs better and helping them with their daily problems does a much better job of keeping me connected to what issues modern companies are facing than debating the merits of pitch decks in 45-minute sessions.

In my job, I obviously need to do both. But I can tell you which is more clearly on the right side of the Haimish line. So in 2012 you’ll see me a lot more often at the Launchpad LA offices. And on the road out meeting you. Speaking at events. Holding dinners. Getting rides from random people (a habit I picked up from Brad Feld). Occasionally inviting anybody available in the next 30 minutes to come have breakfast with me.

Happy 2012 to all of you.

My wish for you all is – when your January program to “get back into shape” fades into normal life, try for your second goal.  Remember the Haimish line.

Find ways to always put yourself amongst people where you’re an equal and where your status is less important than your ability to talk, engage, challenge, compete and laugh with others.

Some Fun Extra Reading

If you have some extra time and want to read some of the other posts I’ve done that stray outside of the tech boundaries I’ve compiled a small list of my favorite ones below (in no particular order):

1. Focus on “The Dopeness” (Life is 10% how you make it, 90% how you take it)
2. Whose Life are you Going to Change? (my tribute to Cory Van Wolvelaere & challenge to readers)
3. Don’t Take the Littles Things for Granted (on spouses, children & friendships)
4. Leadership, Teams, Success & Happiness (Tiger Moms & the true definition of success)
5. Don’t Lose Twice (know when it’s time to be gracious)
6. Read, Travel, Experience, Live (avoiding monoculture as a way to become a broader thinker)

(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)

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2x startup Founder & CEO who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. His first company, BuildOnline was sold in 2005, his second, Koral was acquired by Salesforce.com and became known as Salesforce Content, while Mark served as VP Product Management. In 2007 Mark joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner.  He focuses on early-stage technology companies, usually looking at Series A investment, and blogs at the aptly titled Both Sides of the Table.