Negotiation Musings: on The New US-Israel Defence Deal

There’s a few publications covering the latest multi-year $bn US-Israel defence deal; some of them are seeing this as an Israeli achievement (whether that’s good or bad for the region), while others are singing a completely different song, especially as this new deal includes some unprecedented terms:

  1. A 9% decline in annual aid in real terms (increase in nominal terms, for the headlines), despite said geopolitical state of flux.
  2. A clause that forces Israel to spend all aid money with US manufacturers. Previously, 26% was cordoned off for Israeli manufacturers — this will be a body blow to the local security industry and to jobs.
  3. A prohibition on Israel going to congress for a top-up in the next few years — clearly aimed at neutralising a Republican Party/Netanyahu alliance against Hillary Clinton, if she is elected.

This deal could have easily just focused on the number, but it didn’t. Putting my politics aside for the moment, from a negotiations point of view, I find it quite interesting how Obama seems to have consciously used his ego to lead him through the process, against common negotiation wisdom, but obviously to great effect. After Netanyahu repeatedly antagonised Obama over the last 8 years (building more settlements, publicly supporting Romney, speaking against Obama in Congress), the president of the US is letting his anger show through the terms.

With regards to using time pressure, theoretically, with US elections looming, and Clinton vying for the endorsement of Jewish-American organisations, Netanyahu held the cards; evidently that was either a false assumption, or even if it was true, it did not help him at all.

Overall seems like a very bad deal for the Israeli government, with less aid, less jobs, and less ability to renegotiate in the future. Above all with this deal, I believe Obama’s team has attempted to send a loud political message to Israeli voters and Republican members of the US Congress alike.

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So, you want to be a startup mentor

“Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Silicon Alley to Silicon Wadi to Silicon Mountain (!), the world is full of both established and would-be technology hubs, trying to be or become the local alternative to the SF bay area original. Interestingly—as shown in papers such as this PhD thesis by Robyn Klingler-Vidra—if there’s one common policy theme between these innovation hubs, it’s that in terms of supporting government policy, they’re each adopting different ways to go about a similar end goal.

Conversely, at the grass roots level, I find it fascinating that many perceived elements of the “Silicon Valley culture” are being taken as is: industrial, half-finished-looking office design; hipster fashion, complete with beards, thick-rimmed glasses and sticker-filled Macbooks (check out Peter Thiel’s view on hipsters in his thought-provoking “Zero to One”); a wealth of ethically sourced food, with a special focus on high-end coffee, usually served by baristas who subscribe to aforementioned hipster fashion; and, of course, startup mentors.

I also have a beard, thick-rimmed glasses and a sticker-filled Macbook, and can appreciate the work of skilled baristas. More to the point, I’ve spent the last few years investing a sizeable amount of my free (and professional) time in mentoring and advising London- and Cambridge-based enterprise software and cloud computing startup teams, through accelerators, work-related initiatives, and independently. For someone whose formative professional years were spent in dotcom-era Israel’s startup community, watching the British ecosystem emerge as (arguably) the dominant European hub has been nothing short of exciting.

In the VC era, mentorship was simply about finding someone — through your investors or by other means — who has done this before, and who through their contacts, capital, and experience, can help you, at the very least, to fail more elegantly and bounce back more quickly. Think the late, great Bill Campbell to Steve Jobs and Larry Page, or Sean Parker to Mark Zuckerberg.

Then along came the first accelerators, and put mentorship onto a production line. Instead of a few deep relationships, you’d be exposed to many mentors as part of the program, which would (a) contribute directly to the venture in the classic way I described above, and (b) train the team in filtering out noise, getting their nutrients while drinking from a fire hydrant.

No doubt this model can still work well at a modest scale, within a sensible format, and in hubs where the local mentor community is still mostly made up of people who have loads of relevant, direct entrepreneurship, technology, or investment experience. As an example, at Springboard in Cambridge, which later became Techstars London, a handful of mentors—many of them from the local university’s tech community—were given ample time to develop conversations with the teams, and both sides were then asked to state who they’d like to “date again”. A good mentor pool, clear expectations, and the conditions for creating relationships.

Enter the rise of the regional hubs, and the subsequent boom in accelerators worldwide. I’ll put aside the question of “how much is too many accelerators”, but be sure to check out this report from VentureBeat; I want to focus on mentorship. Unlike Palo Alto, New York, or Tel Aviv, most of the newer technology hubs did not have a rich pool of people who had “done it before” to tap into, but as these hubs sought to lead in the race for the “Silicon Valley of ___”, I’d argue that the quantity of mentors became a priority.

So here’s the thing: mentorship is like any relationship in both the conditions that create it, and the practices that sustain it. Yes, you never know when The Lightning Bolt will hit, but you’d probably agree that it is statistically and logically foolish to *plan on* finding a life partner at a speed dating evening, or your next best friend at a packed local gym.

Likewise, if you’re given a handful of minutes with a founding team, sometimes concurrently with other mentors, all you’re probably doing is adding to the fire hydrant. You might remember what their idea was, but they will probably not remember your input, if you could get a word in, amongst the dozens of people they saw that day.

If you want to meet the right people, be picky about where you seek them out. Pick high-quality accelerators that are right for you, seek out funds and other organizations where mentorship isn’t a diluted activity, and use your own network to find opportunities that you may be uniquely placed to contribute to. This takes time and effort, but it’s never a waste.

On to sustaining relationships. First, understand that a mentor’s role is not the same as a coach’s, or an advisor’s. Do some basic research and figure out which model is right for you, and what this model is called right now in your hub of interest. Again, beware word inflation.

Second, expect, and even demand, a relationship. The team might be close to maxed out, stressed about burn rate, yes, all those things. But if you have something tangible to contribute to them, they will find time and you should workaround their constraints. And if they go silent, call them on it, try to understand why the relationship has stalled, or move on. Expressions like “what am I to you” and “where is this going” are suprisingly adaptable to a business setting.

Lastly, don’t expect to “get” anything out of it. If you’re interested in financial upside, invest. If you’re interested in coaching someone over time in a particular role or skill, open a coaching business. If you want to contribute specialised advice for a chunk of equity, advise. And if you’re interested in actually steering the business, join the team as either exec or NED. Mentorship follows the rule of karma — you really never know where good deeds will lead you.

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Mad Men: 7 Musings for 7 Seasons

(Minor spoiler alert if you haven’t finished watching the series)

I’m sure other, better-qualified people have touched on some of these points, but nonetheless I had an urge to put my own thoughts out there.

  1. The white man’s pain. A film critic I admire (yes, that emotion is possible towards a film critic) once claimed that most Hollywood non-comedy films deal with the white American man‘s existential struggle to keep up with, and adapt to, changes in 20th-21st century American society, and to his diminishing importance in a de-patriaching society. In an era where top-notch TV (Mad Men, Sopranos…) competes head-on with Hollywood, I think we can add Don Draper and Tony Soprano to the likes of characters played by Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, Michael Douglas, Bruce Willis and many others.
  2. Not a man, a brand. Don Draper copes a bit differently with this crisis than the aforementioned. Don isn’t exactly a man, he’s a brand. He is incredibly handsome and well-groomed on the outside. He is shallow (if not rotten, per his creator) on the inside — even slowly stripped of every meaningful asset (wives, kids, car, home…). He still sports the same clothes and the same haircut and the same facial expressions while everyone around him goes mod, turns hippie, grows facial hair. (Take a look at footage from season 1 — even considering age, Don is the one that has changed the least, by far.) But crucially, at every junction he understand instinctively how to tweak himself to fit the new reality and thrive in it, how to make people around him feel good that he’s around, doing whatever it is he does, spreading his brand equity. Just like we can’t always explain our loyalty to a brand, neither can the people around Don explain how they keep having him around. Even though he is just the same as always.
  3. The weight shifts. One of the most interesting transformations in the series was the shifting of the charisma and potential from alpha-male characters like Don and Roger in a testosterone-fueled Sterling-Cooper in season 1, to the newly-confident Peggy and entrepreneurial Joan, especially while Don is falling apart and Roger finally comes to terms with his age. A good summary of the progress of women in the workplace by 1970 — certainly far from where it should be (it still is), but nonetheless something to be proud of when looking back to 1960.
  4. Who can you trust? The 60’s. Political assassinations, the Soviet scare, the disaster of Vietnam, civil rights and racial unrest, women challenging the ages-old patriarchy, rock’n’roll, drugs, free love, generational rebellion… in the end, in such a fluid reality, the only things one can count on to still be there for you are the religion of consumerism, the Church of Madison Avenue, and the brands that they serve.
  5. Falling is actually cyclical. Number 2 and 3 bring me to the iconic opening theme of Mad Men (which has not changed in 8 years — a serious attestment to its artistic vision). The show’s last episode confirms that yes, Don is falling, but only to end up as usual, on his sofa, cigarette and tumbler in hand. This symbolizes his cycles of reinvention, the shedding his skin to come back with “new ideas, a new you”.
  6. How to be creative. There’s a LOT of talk about what creativity is and how one fosters and encourages it in a corporate environment. As the most creative professional in his ultra-competitive field, Don’s answer is to completely reject the corporate norms of working from 9-to-5, of methodical preparation, of playing office politics. His ideas come from naps on the office sofa, from serendipitious road trips, from unplanned and unannounced disappearances and from near-nervous breakdowns. In other words, the bad news for most businesses still today: his opinion is that inspired and inspiring creativity just cannot flourish in a ‘normal’ corporate environment. Drop the rules, or drop your expectations.
  7. Understanding business. Even with my 16+ years to date of business experience in both startups and corporates, Mad Men always managed to delight me with fresh and unexpected insights about the realities of businesses. Whether it’s the fact that you never really know anyone you work with until you travel together; or watching the evolution of the marketing profession from complete reliance of the client on the ad agency in the early seasons, to the modern corporate exec (Pete Campbell in this case); or how an entrepreneurial itch has to get scratched, even if it means walking away from a corporate career or a comfortable life of leisure (Joan Harris). A good and unexpected source of wisdom.

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Make your own mosaic

Getting and benefiting from advice is a bit like putting together a mosaic. Somehow, you need to take all those small pieces, in different colors, that seemingly have no connection to each other, figure out which ones are relevant for you, and the create a self-expressive, coherent piece that by aggregating those little pieces in the context of your life. Like many on here, I’ve received tons of big and little pieces of advice, some of it good and some bad. So instead of just one piece of advice, I thought of taking a meta approach. So here’s just a few career-oriented themes that emerge:

It’s a small world. Whether you work in a niche industry or a huge one, and whether your market is Liechtenstein or China, curiously, there will be many people whom you will meet several times along your career journey. So I make an effort to treat people with respect, and to not make things personal. If I fall out with someone, I just need to be prepared for a scenario where she is whispering on the ears of my potential customer, partner, investor or employer.

Keep people 80% happy. Especially in a cross-functional environment, objectives and interests won’t always overlap completely. You need to do what you need to do, and you don’t want to alienate people you might need to depend upon in the future. However, a healthy tension is, well, healthy, and just about 20% of discord can keep people engaged.

Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Well-known and widely-given advice, so I will only add that in my experience, this is a great shortcut to the aforementioned 80% happiness level.

Avoid group-anxiety. There’s no use in joining a group of several others who are actively freaking out about the exact same problem, like the famous meme showing seven construction managers standing above a hole in which one person is doing the actual digging. Either you take ownership to free up others, or find out what you can do to help in other channels, or just move on. Kind of related to the next one.

Don’t be where there is no/little added value. Pretty simple, really. This obviously applies to roles in which you’re not adding value, but also to situations where you’ve stopped or slowed down your learning. Fix it or move on. To me this is a narrow, functional derivative of Seneca’s famous quote in The Shortness of Life, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

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