Archive for the ‘A Line In the Sand’ Category

March 23, 2013 by admin
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Goats yes, power not so much

Goats yes, power not so much

I use a mantra since Wadi Rumm called ABC- always be charging. It served me well in the desert, where power was precious and communication was crucial. At many times, we were several days ride from actual electrical power. But to us, the importance of blogging (and tracking!) our where-abouts were crucial to our state of mind, if not our well-being.

There were times when the sun was high and the solar panel would do wonders for laptops, phones and PLB’s but we were so exhausted all we wanted to do was crawl under a rock (literally 15 degrees cooler) and sleep. But Mr. Jones would never let that pass, and soon neither would I. If a recharge is available and the next power is days away, plug in no matter what. This simple rule got us through Jeddah, Wejd, Wadi, and all the way to Damascus.

But I have kept the rule with me. I used it at SXSW, I use it in airports, and of course I use it in the start-up world. On a long journey, in hostile territory one cannot afford to simply “run out”. 

Much like power in the desert, the journey of a start-up has incredible resource requirements. Capital, of course. And Talent. Creativity. Process. And Strategy. If each of those are not recharged regularly, they become tired and weak. We rely on old standards, and resist change, preferring to crawl under the shady rock and wait until things cool off.

So, I try to take a page from my desert adventures whenever I can. Restock on talent, and fill the pipeline with A Players waiting for a chance. Exploring different points of view and different ways of doing things from all walks of life before re-engaging with the problems at hand. And looking at strategy through different lenses and with new data points regularly (but not incessantly).

Yes, Indeed as Saba and Tad taught me well: always be charging.


March 01, 2013 by admin
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Gray, the digital native

Gray, the digital native

My son stole my Kindle the other day and ordered a bunch of books because the button looked good. Not much more to add to that story, aside from he’s a digital maniac and I still like to read. So, I went back and looked at what I have read in the past decade and what stuck. As many of you know, I’m still not quite done with my college degree… but I’m still an enthusiastic learner and read a book or two a month. That’s a must-do for any leader who is looking to keep his mind fresh and his thoughts topical.

But there are also some books that I constantly refer to, reread, and recommend. Some of them are great learning on outright effectiveness, others highlight specific processes, a few deal with venturing, others on triumph… and death. Anyways, I think the body of work is indicative of where my values lie. And perhaps my un-nerving ability to make anything into an analogy. So here’s my top list, and why.
  • Who for Hiring: Great book and a good 30 minute read on spotting, attracting, motivating, and retaining A Players. I currently source a least 5 candidates per month for our business by using his techniques, which boil down to simply listening to what people’s goals are and talking about their strengths and weaknesses. It has helped me attract, retain and motivate hi skilled employees in a brutally tight market.
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Great book and process on being which was originally the senior thesis of Steven Covey. I had an EO retreat on this last week and reconnected with these powerful techniques for listening, problem solving, goal setting, and self-discipline. It has helped me to craft a mission statement, honor commitments across all roles, and focus on what is most important.
  • Ownership Thinking: A new one on the scene, and a good read on how people in a business think: like employees or like owners. Obviously, the leverage comes when people focus on the latter. It is just beginning to help me focus the team on what the true company priorities are and why building value in the enterprise creates a positive effect across the whole base.
  • Flow: The Science of Optimal Experience: A simple yet effective way to find happiness through a combination of challenge and skills acquisition. It has helped me reframe the debate on what we are doing and how we feel about it, making everything a quest for “the way” and a game that never stops. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it never gets old. It is the definition of happiness, for me at least.
  • Into Thin Air: Another epic adventure that played out as several teams attempted Everest, and a few dozen almost got killed. A lot of lessons to be learned about provisioning, planning, and the effects of elevation on human capacity and performance. There are so many similarities to start-ups, except perhaps frostbite and death. It has helped me to express the entrepreneur’s journey as one in which people join the expedition at different times, but very few actually ascend the peak, safely. It also teaches the lesson it is better to own a part of the expedition than to force your way above an altitude you can effectively handle.
  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom An epic by any stretch of the imagination, and required reading for every US Army grunt assigned to the MEA theatre in the past two wars. T.E.Lawrence has a lot to say about strategy, preservation of resources, and use of the mighty pen. The fact that it is going on 100 years in print, and was rewritten from memory when his notes were left on a train… says something. This book has helped me to imagine events in great scale and over longer periods than most people think. It also has inspired me to live with minimal drag, and a few very big objectives.
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain. A touching book, and actually not one you’d expect to see here. But there is something to be learned. Things are not always as they seem, you can effect change in seemingly locked in lives, and good guys do get second chances. It has helped me persevere in situations where I just could not imagine how to exit, and then imagine the perfect exit.
October 08, 2012 by miles
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Good Knight

We recently took an investment from an angel who was graduated Cambridge and shared this tidbit:

One enterprising undergraduate examined the University statutes prior to an examination and discovered that all students sitting exams in full fusc are entitled to a glass of sherry. He demanded his due in the exam, and the University’s Proctors duly responded, before fining him one shilling for failing to wear his sword, allegedly also part of the archaic statutes. 

The point he made was, he fully expected that if I ever sat for an exam again I would cite a medieval code, perhaps in Latin, to set the playing field in my favor. I laughed it off at the time as a Frasier-Crane like idiosyncratic remark. But it got me thinking…

I have actually walked Temple Church in London, trekked the Crusader Castles from Syria to Jerusalem, visited the site of Jacque Demolay’s burning at the stake by King Philip IV, and never pass a chance to hoof through a cathedrale on any of my many visits to France. My family name is Norman French (the De Spencer meant warehouse manager, back in the day) and became English a bit after 1066 (lineage impossible to prove, or disprove). So if I wasn’t actually a Templar in training all these years, I certainly went through the paces. As per usual with Spencer’s, I did it without even knowing why.

Irony is, of course, none of these experiences hold a candle to entrepreneurship when it comes to having so many chances to do something with purpose, and to hone a craft in pursuit of that goal. There are so many risks to combat, so many people to inspire and lead, so many “bet the holy sites” decisions to be made every day I have come to rely on a basic code that I recite every day, and spend hours meditating on: my mission statement as taught to me by Steven Covey of Seven Habits. I have become a crusader for doing what is fair and best for the company and all its stakeholders while building enterprise value along the way. And I take it seriously enough to blank out everything else around me when I am engaged.

But to be honest, that’s about the only way to succeed in start ups today.

So what’s my point?  None really. I just consider start ups to be the great Crusader challenge of the 21st century.

I love what I do. And I have a sword. Touche’ BB






September 27, 2012 by miles
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This ain’t easy either

I’ve spent a lot of time with a legendary Broadway producer, working on an epic project that has been documented before: A Line in the Sand. We’re still workin’ on it.

The development process has been a pretty interesting study for me in how an entirely different species functions. In my travels for ALITS, we often were impressed not by the differences (between Islam and Christianity, between Americans and Arabs, between people with oil and people who buy oil) but by the similarities between.Well, taking a moment to think about it, I realized that based on what Nelle has taught me, Broadway and Silicon Alley have a lot to teach each other as well. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • It’s hard to make a living, it’s easier to make a killing. This is perhaps the most true of the Broadway maxims. Bad shows flop, and quickly. Good shows go on and on, recoup and payout like mad. There isn’t much in the middle. Much is true in Silicon Alley. Startups are such a tricky game, and usually require so much more capital than founders can muster, it is a rare bird indeed that escape from that jungle with all his feathers. Conversely, it’s actually hard just to develop a product and plod along these days, making a decent wage or earnings to feed a family and put them through school. It’s damn near impossible, in terms of the odds. Ironically, only the winners (and the good shows) are picked up in the media, and it seems like it was so easy. 
  • Do you want it Tuesday, or do you want it good? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this from writers, who remind me you could have 100 people work on Gone with the Wind and it would be finished sooner. But perhaps not better. Likewise, mobile apps, websites and all manner of digital media solution are never masterpieces: they are works in process, at best. My advice, don’t expect to get it perfect, get it out and start talking to customers about it.
  • Stars attract rock stars, and the opposite. If you think it’s brutally hard to recruit star talent in Silicon Alley, try Broadway. The best way, the only way to get it is to start with… a star. A great script begets a great Producer, who attracts a great Director, who has stars that love to work with him/her etc. No different with co-founders and first hires in start ups.
  • Good to be tough, better to be nice too. Oh god the things I have heard come out of the mouths of seemingly otherwise charming and polite people in theatre. Spicy! But I’ve always heard it delivered in the kindest, gentlest ways possible. No one actually gets visibly upset, even though they are bleeding buckets. So, I would chalk that up to being superb at your craft and willing to defend your interests, but doing it in a well thought out, perhaps classy manner actually gets better results.
  • Leverage a good review. Know when you’re rollin’. Theatre folks are good at this, entrepreneurs perhaps less so. They know when they have the leverage of some momentum, and they move accordingly. I think too many entrepreneurs are to busy executing to recognize this.

Anyways, that’s what I’ve learned up to now about Broadway. Anyways, maybe it helps somewhere.

October 21, 2011 by miles
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I was deep in the desert of Wadi Rum, sharing a pile of sand and a starry night while a curry dinner was cooking on the stove when our guide Saba began to talk of his family. These long treks were a good source of pay for him, but nothing could replace the feeling of wealth from  being back home, simple as it was, with his wife and three kids. He had seen more than anyone in his village (including two crazy American’s intent on trekking from Jeddah to Damascus) but nothing ever came close to the highest hierarchy of his family, his faith and his health.

We met them later in the journey, and realized just how simple this truth was. Saba waxed as poetic as a hardened deserts guide ever , in pidgin english and flowery arabi, about how important family and children were to his culture, his standing and his happiness. I was mildly embarrassed at my country and it’s focus on consumption of… everything.

Then he turned to us. And you? Do you have children?

We had been asked that question in every corner of Saudi, Jordan, and later Syria. Children: how many. Tad and I had heard it enough times to know that Tad always answered first in order to get the best reaction. I have SIX! And grandchildren as well! Hands raised in praise around the fire as everyone acknowledged the virility of my good friend. Jai’yed habibi!

And when the laughs died down and the stories were told about each of them, the eyes invariably turned to me. And what of you, Mr. Spencer. Do you have any children. I knew I would be asked, and they likely would have not much to say, perhaps some attempt at anything nice while their eyes glanced down and back into the fire. But I had been thinking a lot on the trek about just those same values, and what was important to me and my life. And I happened upon the most beautiful word, for me, for them, for the situation at hand, and for my future.

I simply said: Insha’allah.

When I said the word, and let it fall alone on the desert night it would take them a moment to realize that was my final answer. Complete. Insh’allah. They expected more (as in everyday arabic, every other word is insh’allah). It somehow still made everyone smile when they pondered further, and wish me the same good tidings as Mr Jones beside me. But for me, on that trip and ever since is was nearly a compact with myself.

It means God willing.

Grayson Max Spencer was born 12 October 2011, 5 years, 5 months, and 24 days after Saba lit that fire. Amazing what you can learn in the desert.

Another amazing adventure.

September 23, 2011 by admin
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From my UN field trip...

The streets of new York City are clogged with tyrants, powerbrokers, divas and muses these days… and I don’t just mean Fashion Week! The Isle of Manhattan yields to the UN General Assembly’s Fall Gathering, and while I passively observe both, Melissa reminds me I am more useful commenting on the latter.

I spend a fair amount of time and capital in my own quest to understand the Middle East, but it doesn’t take all that to know this week brings a seminal moment in our influence there… it’s a whole new ball game if you haven’t noticed.

Wednesday’s Sarkozy rebuke of Obama was legendary, but Friday brings us the big squirm: the Palestinian quest for membership at the U.N is driving the US to the brink of sanity as throwing a veto on behalf of Israeli interests will surely off the rest of the Arab States. In the morning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to speak. He has said that after he gives that speech, he will deliver a letter for application to the U.N. secretary-general. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to speak a little later in the day.

What makes me interested in this business is that the Arab Spring has set in motion a Rube Goldberg progression with no known end result. What Cairo unleashed was the power of  mobile social media among restless people, aided by the most unlikely of news sources al-Jazaeera. Long running dynasties in are running scared. And the West and the US in particular has at least one eye on the oil spigot, at least one toe in the Israel camp, and one hand in their pocket looking for the any loose change to help their ailing economy. Meanwhile, with this “people’s democracy” thing being bandied about as the likely solution to the vacuum left by the tyrants I have to believe everyone at the UN Cafe is wondering where it all leads and who leads after all.

Many of us Americans were only recently introduced to Islam in a most unfortunate way 10 years ago, as Irshad Manji points out in her blog . The Middle East is beginning to get its footing in modernity after a long and deep slumber with a rich cultural and religious legacy. That footing will displace our world order. As Robert Fisk opines in the Independent  this vote at the UN – General Assembly or Security Council is going to divide the West – Americans from Europeans and scores of other nations – and it is going to divide the Arabs from the Americans. It is going to crack open the divisions in the European Union; between eastern and western Europeans, between Germany and France (the former supporting Israel for historical reasons, the latter sickened by the suffering of the Palestinians) and, of course, between Israel and the EU.  Ten years ago on 9/11 OBL succeeded in polarizing the West and the Muslim world  Zach Karabell, from Daily Beast reminds us, but a decade later, in the wake of the Arab Spring, that seems more transitory than permanent. We are living one of Thomas Friedman’s four ruling bargains, and it is going to probably hurt.

I was fortunate enough to join US Ambassador Frank Wisner for breakfast this week at the Next American Economy gathering put on by Bo Cutter. Reflecting on his overview, and I paraphrase here and am not quoting or mis-quoting,…the glide path from hegemony to responsible power is an important one for the US to manage. Letting domestic politics trump global influence will make the landing a hot mess. We must remember the importance of events, stay engaged, and remain cautious.

So while the Middle East and  the Arab spring may seem far away to us most of the time, this week the whole show is right here in Manhattan and the effects of how it all plays out will have profound influence on how we are viewed in the world. It will be a painful reminder of just how vulnerable we Americans really are.

No fashion runway ever had so much riding one show!

05 September

Seriously, Syria?

September 05, 2011 by miles
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Errmm, all's well here...

The beatings will continue until morale improves…

That about sums up the Assad’s family strategy for dealing the outbreak of “Arab Spring” in Syrian towns as it continues into “who’s next to Fall, this Fall”.  I think it is a country worth keeping an eye on, though it is very difficult with limited social media permitted.

Fellow Americans know so very little about the little country wedged between Lebanon and Iraq. I know just enough to be dangerous: my trek through the country with Tad Jones gave us a very unique perspective and continues to be the influence for our singular effort to inform our kin with our in-development play, A Line in the Sand. As we’ve said before, the region may look differently if TE Lawrence used twitter. We have tried piecing together Syria’s history enough to understand its future. But we’ve only been noodling it for five years, while they’ve had centuries to create the puzzle. Here’s a few pieces:

First: Syria is a key domino in one of the four big tectonic changes that will define the next generation: access to oil. While they have little oil themselves, they have long been a keystone in the strategic interests of the region, crossing both ethnic and geographic ties. Many of the current conflicts in the region lead back to Damascus, one way or another: Baghdad, Tehran, West Bank, Golan, Beirut, Israel proper, the Palestinian question, etc. etc. The entire region has a long history of being tribal, and Syria has exploited those gaps for centuries.

(for the other three, and a lot more eloquent grasp of geo-politics, see Thomas Friedman and the world’s four ruling bargains): 1) The world’s oil tap is deposing its old regimes, 2) Europe is unravelling as PIIGS spend and Germans save, 3) China’s deliberately undervalued currency and export-led growth keeping the Communist Party’s in power by providing rising living standards, and 4) In America, a credit-consumption-led economy, whereby we maintained a middle class by using steroids (easy credit, subprime mortgages and construction work) and less muscle-building (education, skill-building and innovation).

Second: It’s strategic. because of this  position, the region has been fought over for centuries. Long before there was oil, there were the Crusades whereby the Catholic church essentially invented the jihad, IMHO. Teutonic Knights were promised eternal gratitude and absolution in advance for re-taking Jerusalem and slaughtering anyone that stood in the way. This generally meant Muslims. In support of the thousands that made their way to the Holy Land, huge logistical challenges were met as Hospitallers literally paved the path from France to Palestine with roads, castles, and supporting infrastructure provisions (and became rich in the meantime).  I have personally visited Krak de Chevaliers in Homs and I can attest to the awesomeness of the work as well as the brilliance of the positioning. It was clear the spot was very important and was not going to be given up easily.

Third: Syria is the ultimate state controlled, exterior influenced, family business. Bashar al-Assad is the current president, and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad. Bashar’s prior occupation was ophthalmologist, so it was likely his family connections that got him the job. With very few natural resources and de-minimus GDP (#67 thank you, just beating Oman) sometimes it seems like the whole country gets by playing two rivals against another, or one against the middle. Iran and Russia have deep ties, obviously. The former a result of Cold War support, the latter more like neighborly politics. Syria has been under Emergency Law from 1962, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered non-democratic. Many citizens I know live between terror and resignation. If the Arab revolt continues, hope will replace resignation, but terror will continue.

Fourth: Syria has stunningly rich history. The near future is likely to take inspiration from its past. I had the good fortune to tour just a bit of it, including Jerash which was one of the great Roman outposts and remains today one of the finest of Syria’s 50,000 archeological sites. The Crusaders rolled through a thousand years later and left an amazing collage of castles and fortifications. The French have stuck around for the past millennium in the Levant, and it shows. In this century, Lawrence of Arabia organized the tribes of the dessert into revolt against the Turks by promising Damascus as the prize upon victory. For a people raised in the sands of the deserts, there was no more fertile green imaginable. The bait worked, for at least as long as Lawrence’s promises weren’t already undercut by French-English back-handedness. The West is still reaping what was sown in post WW I Syria it’s no wonder Lawrence is called by one biographer “A Prince of Our Disorder”.  

So, far as I can see, the beatings in Syria will likely continue. It will not fall easily because we have little leverage, outsiders are too interested in the status quo, and the insiders are not interested in anything short of carrying on. Change will depend on those who see the benefits and are willing to risk to consequences of the process. In the meantime, I wish my Syrian friends their safety, peace and a better place than yesterday.

PS: the best damn rose petal jam in the world is served with the french croissants at the Biet al mamlukkka hotel.





February 23, 2011 by admin
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Tad and Alleyanne. Wadi Rumm.

I once rode a camel across the desert, with a local named Saba and a TE Lawrence look-alike, Tad Jones. We concluded that the Middle East would be more fun if Lawrence had had access to Facebook and Twitter. If he had, some of his posts might have looked like this:

  1. WTH #Versailles we can’t mix #Sunni rulers with #Shiite peeps. They don’t abide!
  2. Not a drop of water in this damn desert! Black goopy stuff all over. Burns good though… other uses???
  3. #Libya, using bombers on (your) people in the streets? see #Baghdad. Eventually, they do start to hate.
  4. How is everyone spelling #Khadaffi?# Gadaffi? #Quadaffi? In the name of the holy one, please choose!

Lawrence wrote the seminal work on the Middle East in a notebook . Since then, Seven Pillars of Wisdom has never been out of print, and never far from the bedstands of every despot, marine and guerilla with even a passing interest in the region. Here’s the Cliff Notes for the rest of us:

  1. It’s tribal. From Baghdad to Riyadh, there are hundreds of unique tribes and dozens of sects.  Sunnis and Shia are just two. The locals have been wandering, sniping and looting each other for a thousand years. Recent behavior has improved, but they don’t trust outsiders quickly.  Or much, for that matter.
  2. It’s slightly blessed with a black gooey natural resource, which has fallen into the control of a small elite class. The Western world (France, England and the US, for this discussion) has quite an appetite for said Black Stuff- so we’re willing to tolerate the stench of  the despots who control it. China is immune to this moral argument, (see prior post on China: How we roll).  In any event, we set up most of them in their cushy situations, but this “buddy deal” tends to upset the masses.  And then the leaders have to choose, because…
  3. The borders of these kingdoms are completely made up. It happened one afternoon in 1921 over tea at the Cairo Country Club when Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell et al literally drew Lines in the Sand (check out the play by the same name in development by writer A.C. Grayling).

Cairo in 2011 has shown what can be accomplished by the people, when the people are informed.  What would the rest of the Middle East be like if TEL had been tweeting back then?  Here’s my take:

  1. Oil might have been priced higher if the locals knew how badly we wanted it in the 1920’s (by reading Facebook Updates instead of outdated, state controlled papers).
  2. The West may not have gotten away with simultaneous promises to a) give Syria to the French, b) give Palestine to the Jews, and c) arrange a pan-Arabian nation for the tribes. But we did, until the beans were spilt and all hell broke loose. Sorry!
  3. And the leaders of these countries might have been elected by the people instead of chosen by France and England, and consequently overthrown by despots who are quite good at exploiting the resources.

But, the way things are going, Facebook and Twitter are keeping things honest over there now. And we might be getting higher oil prices and elected officials soon enough!

Author note: I have friends in every one of these countries, and have visited most of them. I do not belittle the violence against them.

About Miles Spencer

Miles Spencer is a prolific angel investor, media entrepreneur and explorer. He is best known for his role as co-host and co-creator of MoneyHunt, a reality based show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of experts.