Friday, October 26, 2012

A Pause to Take in the View Before Building Again

One of my cross-country teammates in college gave a pep talk before a big race that "when you get up to the top of the hill mid-race, remember to pause to take in the view.”  Over my career this has proved a good lesson, and one that ultimately has allowed me to be thoughtful before charging ahead on big endeavors.  My current path is determined by it.

I left Google for the second time after an 8-year non-stop run of startup craziness.  I had joined Google before it was 1,000 employees, and had seen it grow to 20,000 and beyond.  I went straight into starting Aardvark, and two years later Google acquired the 30-person company.  I committed to return for six months to help transition the team, and then had a year or so to ponder what would come next, and most of all, a chance to take in the view.

I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan with my now fiance as she finished her MBA.  I spent a decent amount of time traveling (India, Ireland). I lightly plugged into a number of entrepreneurial scenes -- both the one around Ann Arbor, as well as briefly in Washington, DC near my sister.  I spent some time with the portfolio companies of investors I know, which quickly taught me that I could only advise a few people at once. I spent the winter semester teaching at the University of Michigan’s engineering school; pretty fun, and illuminating. A handful of prominent VCs pitched me to turn VC.

At the end of it, what I learned was that I love building.  Especially when it involves people.  Building companies, building cultures.  Building products for people.  Investors work with people too, but much less directly; they get to thoughtfully apply money to help other people cause change.  The best investors also frequently act as teachers / advisors, and get to give knowledge to help other people cause change too.  Builders get to cause the change directly.

I've spent the past twelve months creating something I believe has been needed for some time.  I first had to decide that I wanted to build a company again, and I'm glad I took the time for it to be a conscious choice.  And even then, it took a bit of serendipity and the right team to come together to make it happen.  The real impact is still to come, and if you’d like to help or be an early participant, please let me know.

I was at a CEO summit about a month ago and another CEO I’ve known for some time pulled me aside to say, "I'm glad you're back."   I am too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ode to Aardvark: Live on through those you've touched at Google and beyond

[Background note for those who may not be familiar with Aardvark: Aardvark was the company I co-founded in 2008 with Max Ventilla, Damon Horowitz, and Rob Spiro. Aardvark was the first social search engine, and allowed users to find people in their networks -- not web pages -- who had specific information they were looking for, and connect with them to receive answers. Aardvark's success at creating a unique social utility and knowledge sharing environment led to its acquisition by Google in early 2010.]

I'm proud of Aardvark, as it comes to an end. In learning this past holiday weekend of Google's announced plan to shut down Aardvark, I am touched by many memories of Aardvark and how special it was to so many people.

For me, Aardvark captured the amazing capacity for human generosity, and was effective because people desire to be heard and acknowledged. Aardvark was a channel for the best nature of the people it connected. While I'm sad to say goodbye, I believe Aardvark will live on through these same people it has touched.

There were many examples of the best of humanity in Aardvark. There was the person who told us that the best moment of her work day was when Aardvark pinged her over chat, as she felt more accomplished by spending a few moments providing an answer to friend of a friend, than everything else she had done all day. Answers were not always about dry intellectual matters; sometimes people just wanted a moment of levity, and would ask for and tell jokes, cheering each other up.

Aardvark also connected people in real life. There was a business visitor from out of town who asked for a good pub to take his co-workers to, and was personally greeted by the person who suggested the bar through Aardvark. And, as with most successful online communities, romantic relationships were sparked, in one case between a pair many degrees of friends and many miles removed, all because of a literary conversation they had after being connected through Aardvark.

Aardvark frequently found a way to brighten the days of those of us who became committed fans. In fact, the beloved Aardvark logo came to the team as an unsolicited gift from an Aardvark fan. All of these people, and many more, were the reasons we took Aardvark from a baby experiment to full-grown adult. The cute little Vark always felt alive because of the people it touched and connected, and how much they'd come to care for it.

I'm going to post a few more times over the coming days and weeks as I digest the end of Aardvark. I hope to share some of what I loved about the team, my co-founders, and the culture we created at our company. I also want to spend time talking about how great it was to be welcomed back as a returned Googler (ReGoogler?). I departed as planned last summer, (ReXoogler?) for reasons of my own that we all agreed on during the acquisition. And, I will share some of what I've been up to over the past year of traveling, teaching, advising, observing, and starting in on a new company.

But right now, I just want to say goodbye to a dear friend. I'm sad to see the end come for our burrowing mammal, but I believe Aardvark will live on. We will always remember, fondly, the friendships, knowledge, sense of community, and refreshing reminder of the human desire to help and connect that were Aardvark. I certainly will.


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Thursday, April 24, 2008

A day at The Mechanical Zoo

I've been asked a lot about what I'm up to post-Google; I'm betting most of those who are asking weren't expecting to find out I'm working at a zoo as a keeper. ;) Of course, this isn't just any old zoo, this is The Mechanical Zoo (, and it's our very own, very unique zoo.

Judging by some media reports, you might think we ride into work on the backs of mechanical dinosaurs or show up at work wearing super-hero outfits to match our super-hero names (the super hero part isn't really true, but T-rex and I have a nice commute down Market street in the mornings).

As for who we are and what we're working on, thankfully Stefanie Olsen's original story that exposed the Zoo was mostly right with only a smidgen of hyperbole, and peeled away just enough of the veil of secrecy for our liking. Without elaborating much further, we're building products that enable a new kind of social search by accessing the knowledge of people in your network. Our first offering is currently in private testing; as we release it to more people, we're also developing several experimental offshoots built around our core technology.

Every day at the Zoo for me is exhilarating now, seeing the reality of our vision unfold. We have a fantastic team, and we're actively looking for more amazing people.We have great validation from our research and tests of our core technology. We have solid financial footing and commitments from fantastic investors. Our office is an amazing wood-paneled loft and I get to look out of wrought-iron windows speckled with post-it notes during the day, and take phone calls on our roof deck.

In short: I don't really ride into work on a mechanical T-rex. But I do get up every morning incredibly excited about heading into The Mechanical Zoo. And I'm glad I don't have to lay low about it entirely any longer; after all, I'm here so much it'd be nice if even more of my existing friends or even some new friends were working here too. Drop me a line if you want to come by the zoo or help us as a tester! nathan (-at-)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Breaking up with Google: a difficult, highly personal decision and a very fond farewell

I feel like I'm breaking up with Google. Can we still be friends?

I've decided that it is time for me to move on from Google, and have resigned effective at the end of 2007. I made this decision after very careful consideration, checking my logic with many mentors and overcoming my sadness at leaving so many friends. I leave with an enormous amount of fondness and gratitude, and wish everyone the very best.

Google has been like a family, one of the most significant shaping influences in my life -- so significant that I'm certain I'll be expounding further in future posts. :) For now: I'm grateful for the fortuitous opportunities I was gifted with during the past five years, the phenomenal people I've had a chance to work with, and the knowledge and experience I have gained that I'll carry through my career and life.

This decision has been quite difficult but ends with positive feelings. I've felt in the past months as if I was breaking up with Google, and I don't think that to be a stretched analogue. I have countless close friends who I've been through the eye of the storm with to see clear sky, and we have history that is hard to think past. So, for all of my friends still in the 'plex, know that "it's not you (Google), it's me," and I hope that we can still stay close after we take some time apart.

I've been comforted by the realization that Google benefits by my departure to tackle new endeavors. Great companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, Procter & Gamble, and GE all consistently turn out leaders in their fields; their employee departures complement the mother ship by spreading the culture and working ethos. Google has many more fine minds joining than it has leaving, and is training them to be technology-focused leaders with a passion for building great consumer focused services.

I'm very lucky to be in a position to make this choice. I leave with certainty that Google will continue its success, and I'll enjoy following from outside as much as I have from inside. I was a Googler long ago, and I'm sure I will be for a long time to come along with millions of others. Keep in touch Google!

Update 1/4/08: My departure from Google has caused general interest with articles in TechCrunch and Mashable that wondered what my plans were for the future. In my email to friends and colleagues, I explained that I'm going to be working hard on a venture of my own in San Francisco. I'll write more in future posts.