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A Few Words about Ron May

A Few Words about Ron May

I have to say a few words about Ron May, the legendary tech blogger on the Chicago scene who passed away today at the age of 57.

Ron, for anyone who knew him, was a chore. He was annoying, abrasive, irreverent, and sometimes downright mean. But he was also persistent, tenacious, had a sense of humor, and believed above all in a mission: to document the successes and failings of the Chicago tech scene.

ronmayI got to know Ron as the cofounder of midVentures (now TechWeek), in 2009 when we were holding our first conferences in Chicago. Ron was of an earlier tech generation. As the writer/blogger/chief journalist of The May Report, he had seen and documented the rise and fall of Chicago tech once already in the 1990’s. By the time I came around with my cohort, it was a whole new ball game, and Ron was our unofficial umpire.

Ron covered midVentures and the work we were trying to do before anyone else did. He was one of our earlier supporters, and even when we were hit by “scandal” (if you could call our temporary hiccups scandals), he was an embodiment of that aphorism that Any Press is Good Press. We would search every May Report for mentions of our company–and many times it would be there, if even in the business card section. People found us because of the May Report. And we knew that if Ron wasn’t talking about us, we were doing something wrong. We needed Ron as much as Ron needed us. Though I can’t speak for them, the rest of Chicago tech must have felt the same way.

That the Chicago tech scene is thriving today is no small part thanks to Ron. He was the one uniting force for all of us: someone who had seen the old generation rise and fall and a new one rise to take its place. He was someone who was never to be missed at industry events, except during his bouts of bad health. His report had a rumored distribution of tens of thousands. There was no one in the industry who didn’t subscribe. It was our Yellow Journalism, our Industry Rag, our Hacker News. All reported and distributed by one man.

The quirks of everybody’s favorite “gadfly” were legendary. He would wheel or limp into events loudly and proudly–with absolutely no misgivings about heckling, prodding, yelling, or enthusing about any topic whatsoever. There was always that moment at any tech meetup or event where you would hear an unmistakable voice somewhere behind you yell, “DO I HAVE YOUR BUSINESS CARD?” and you knew that it was only a matter of time before he made it over to you with the same question. His presence was so loud and hard to ignore–but give him your business card you must, lest you not be listed in that week’s Report. He was kicked out of more than a few events for his rambunctiousness, including ours. I’ll never forget the one time he yelled across a crowded room to me, “Hey Brian, I heard you’re the only other kike in Chicago!” Despite the awkward pejorative, it was nice of him to try to bond with me. I appreciated it at the time and still do.

Of course, above all, he was a journalist. An unconventional journalist, to be sure, but one who was dogged in his pursuit of The Story. He called and emailed, followed up and pestered, never to be deterred by what other people thought of him and certainly not to be deterred by rejection. There was never a story he picked up that he didn’t pursue. The last time I spoke with him, he was trying to chase down why I had left midVentures. I didn’t feel a need to give him the scoop, but he got the information he needed elsewhere. Of course he did. If there be any doubt that he was deeply passionate about journalism and took his responsibility as seriously as any other reporter, one only need read his final published words:

And until we meet again Jerry, Dave, Jeff (both of you), Steve, Terry, Gary, Nik, Bob, Fred, Brian, Chris, Flip, Phil, Paul, and the rest of you, your secrets are safe with me, I have carried them to the grave.

We always knew Ron was sick for a long time, so his passing comes as no surprise. But his life shows how someone with quite a few disadvantages–some personal, some physical–can make an impact. How people who work hard can have their own success, despite naysayers and bad wishers. How even assholes can have the last laugh. And we know that Ron got to have the last laugh many times.

Thanks Ron.

June 24, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
From a Concerned Uber Customer

From a Concerned Uber Customer

Note: I sent this email today in response to the news that the City of Chicago’s “consumer protection” bureau is about to shut down the Uber black car service in Chicago. I hope someone in Chicago reads it!

Dear Mayor Emanuel, Rosemary Krimbel, Michelle Smith and the City of Chicago,

I was disheartened to hear that the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is seriously considering an addition to its regulations, the No Measured Rates Provision (PPV Sec. 1.10), that will restrict the use of certain technologies in reserving black cars in Chicago. It is no secret that these new subsections are an attempt to curtail the productive activities of one service in particular, Uber, which has been running a premium black car reservation service in several US cities since 2011. Uber has unequivocally stated that if these regulations go into effect, they will be forced to shut down their black car service in Chicago.

As an Uber customer and a 5-year former resident of Chicago, Ward 43, I am appalled at the actions taken by the BACP in what is a transparent (and thus far, almost successful) attempt to cut out competition and reduce consumer choice in Chicago, backed by the established taxi industry against innovators like Uber. These new regulations are nothing less than an attack on the consumer and the economy.

The origin of these new rules is supposedly the department of “Consumer Protection,” but it is unclear which consumers these regulations are supposed to protect. Customers of Uber are certainly aware of the service they are buying when they download the Uber app, enter their credit card information, and order a car. It is hard to imagine that the customers use this service willingly and pay for it–and tell their friends about it–if they didn’t derive some benefit from it. Why would thousands of customers have flocked to Uber if it wasn’t a better choice? And if it’s a worse choice, what’s the harm in letting Uber compete for customers like every other company? Even if some customers have been ripped off (which I doubt given Uber’s excellent customer service) it is wholly unfair to deprive thousands of happy customers of their choices because a vocal few are dissatisfied. By that logic, every company in Chicago with a few unsatisfied customers could face censure and delicensing.

If you don’t care about the consumer, what about the worker? Over 1,000 drivers in Chicago depend on Uber for income. These new regulations would put these drivers out of work in an already depressed economy. Uber provides an alternative employment option for drivers to make money from their assets and skills, and put cars to use that would otherwise go undriven. Drivers for Uber stand to lose the most from your unilateral action–hard working people who provide these services and make a living off of them. I have spoken to Uber drivers, and drivers for comparable services like Lyft and Sidecar, who are happy and vocal about their ability to choose among many options for earning a living. Shutting down Uber takes away employment options for good service providers, and indirectly creates a monopsony among existing employers which can be used to exploit drivers and drive down wages and working conditions.

If you have no interest in the consumer or the worker, what about the investor? Uber has raised $49.5 million in venture funding since launching in January 2011. Investors saw the long term potential of a service like Uber to provide a service, create jobs, grow the economy and return dividends. If your new rules go into effect, and other cities follow suit (as many of them already have), the willingness of future investors to take a risk on innovation, especially in a badly under-innovated space like transportation, would be affected. In addition, entrepreneurs like Garret Camp and Travis Kalanick are vital to economic growth and improving the quality of life for everyone else. Would they have taken the leap to start Uber if they had known how hostile markets like Chicago would be to their innovation? Where would our economy be without investors and entrepreneurs like the good people at Uber?

Of course, the dirty secret is that these regulations have nothing to do with consumer protection, and everything to do with legally strong-arming out competition. It is not a coincidence that a coalition of industry Yellow Group, Yellow Cab Affiliation, Taxi Affiliation Services, YC1, 5 Star Flash, Chicago Medallion One and Your Private Limousine all filed suit against Uber on October 5 in an attempt to shut down Uber. It’s one thing to let a lawsuit work its way through the courts in a judicial review; it’s quite another thing to create an end run around any dissent by changing the regulations unilaterally. It seems wholly capricious that one swipe of a pen can threaten the livelihood of thousands of people, put millions of dollars of venture funding at risk, and take away the transportation options of countless happy customers.

But, given that you have that power, why not use it wisely? Instead of stifling innovation, let the market open and let consumer choice drive the economy. Put the consumer in the front seat, where companies like Uber have to be accountable to the people that matter most: their customers.

I hope you will do the right thing and revoke these proposed rules before it’s too late.


Brian Mayer
San Francisco, CA

November 3, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Lessons in Entrepreneurship…from Poker

Lessons in Entrepreneurship…from Poker

Recently, I was putting together a project proposal for a client when I stumbled across a fairly common problem. Embarking on a new venture, for any startup, is risky, but for tech startups, perhaps, the risk is hedged by relatively little overhead and a short timeline to development. After all, a new website can be built in a year whereas a new farm…you get the point. In any event, the problem I stumbled across was the tendency for tech entrepreneurs in general to be impulsive–aware of the risks yet addicted to the high of winning to the point where they lose their sense in the process. This psychological tipping point is what is known in poker as “tilt”–an emotional state that impairs rational thinking and turns an otherwise good player into a gambler.

I’ve been playing poker a lot more in the last two years, both as a form of entertainment and as a serious academic study. Poker, in its most common variant, Texas Hold’em, is not a game of blind luck: it is a game of skill, intelligence, strategy, risk and reward. If played correctly–as one in ten players do–money can be made consistently in the long run. Like in any other field, only a few master it enough to be a professional. There is no such thing as a perfect player: the best players in the world play each other frequently and trade losses.

In entrepreneurship, a lot of lessons can be derived from poker, in what to do and what not to do. How is poker like entrepreneurship? First of all there is the nature of the hole cards themselves, and how absolute certainty in any poker hand is impossible. Instead, a player must rely on his experience, instinct, and a degree of measured, calculated risk to win money (ROI) on his buy-in (investment). There are different types of poker players, just like there are different types of entrepreneurs. They are loose (risky) and tight (cautious), short stacked (poor) and deep stacked (rich). An investment in a poker game means a chance of failure and loss, but also promises its own much greater rewards.

Many poker players I have encountered at the tables are commodities traders or entrepreneurs–this is not a coincidence. Indeed, the same type of thinking applies to both types of people: people who are risk takers, gamblers, but also thrill seekers and optimistic–maybe even a bit greedy. These traits make successful people, but they can also cause ruin. That’s why professionals and poker players alike recommend that you don’t depend on entrepreneurship or poker as a primary source of income unless it is already a consistent source of income for a year or more. That way, you are not risking ruin if you fail.

midVentures does not endorse gambling (our lawyer told me to put that in). However, I believe that if played correctly, poker is not gambling, but a game of skill. After all, there would be no such thing as a professional poker player if it weren’t possible to master the game! (Meanwhile, there is no such thing as a professional roulette or slots player.) At the same time, most people who play do not do it correctly, and lose money. They play like gamblers and lose like gamblers.

The number one lesson for entrepreneurship from poker is this: Don’t lose your head. The best poker players can be undone by a loss of psychological control. Likewise, don’t let small failures in entrepreneurship drive you off the deep end. Keep your head in the game and don’t be undone by a streak of bad luck. If you are committed to your venture, let your sense and ambition steer you, not your emotions.

As a caveat, if you are interested in taking up poker, do it correctly. Don’t gamble! Take it seriously and don’t spend too much money on learning. Don’t start playing at a casino or a game where a buy-in at a table could be $200 or more. This is money you will inevitably lose at first and you will be more discouraged from learning how to play correctly. Get together a home game where the blinds are $0.05/$0.10 and a buy-in of $5 or $10. This way, you can learn how to play without a great risk of loss. Also, read a poker book or two. Although the best way to learn is by doing, reading and watching poker on TV are two other ways you can get better.

For those who are interested, I am announcing the creation of #ChicagoTechPoker, a weekly poker game for techies only. Only 8 players can play at a time, so if you’re interested, please shoot me an email at brian [at] midventures [dot] com.

Learning how to play poker is a great way to fine-tune an analytical mind, to master a skill set of problem solving and hedging risk, and ultimately a path to success. I hope to see aspiring entrepreneurs at the tables!

May 25, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More
Using great Web 2.0 apps

Using great Web 2.0 apps

I have had the pleasure in the last week of becoming intimately familiar with Mailchimp, the Web 2.0 version of Constant Contact. My overall impression of Mailchimp is that it is not only fun, but satisfying to use. That’s what a Web 2.0 product should be about.

To summarize, Mailchimp is an email program which we just started using to send out HTML emails. Our list has grown to over 700 members of the Chicago technology community, and we wanted to communicate with that list in a professional, clean way, and not through our tacky, 1990’s-style listserv that so many of you have expressed dissatisfaction about! Mailchimp allowed us to seamlessly import our contacts and design a professional campaign, as well as use many other features like inbox inspection (see what your email will look like in 30 email clients) and delivery doctor (get past those pesky spam filters!). In addition, Mailchimp provides an interface that is easy, fun, clean, aesthetically pleasing and at some points, humorous.

Point being, I was having so much fun using Mailchimp to design our most recent email campaign that I actually enjoyed paying them money. That’s right. I actually enjoyed sending them more money, for several reasons:

  1. They presented a product interface that was quick, easy-to-use, and very very pretty
  2. The roundness of the application and its confidence made me confident that the services I was paying for are worth every penny
  3. I believe that they deserve the money, because I believe that a good business should be rewarded!

I bring this up because very often we see in the Web 2.0 space a focus on design and functionality, but not necessarily a focus on customers or satisfaction. Mailchimp is an example of a Web 2.0 app that not only looks cool and works well, but also does what I need. I don’t mind paying extra for some features because the whole package works better with them.

I look forward to seeing what the next Web 2.0 apps are that challenge our notion of how business is done. Look at what Mailchimp has done with a combination of good design, seamless functionality and a little bit of humor.

What’s your favorite Web 2.0 app and why?

April 27, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More