Video conferencing: You need better lighting.

Since most of us are working from home and doing more video calls, this is a good time to think about better lighting.

No one wants to look like they’re in a dimly lit bunker in Idaho (even if you happen to be in a dimly lit bunker in Idaho)!

The idea is that you want to be lit from the front. (If you work directly in front of a window, you can ignore this post!)

For the rest of us that have no natural lighting or have lighting from the back or from the side, you need to get some front lighting. Ideally you want something with an 1) easy-to-access switch, 2) something that’s AC powered (vs. rechargeable), and 3) something that provides diffuse light so you’re not blinded.

I use this LEPOWER clip on light that I bought off of Amazon at work and it does the trick (see attached photo). It has two color tones (a bright white and a soft white) and two brightness settings, clamps on the back of my standing desk and costs <$20:

(tip: I stuck the switch to my desk with some double-sided tape to prevent it from constantly falling off the back of the desk*)

And in my home office where I’m now working from all the time, I have a fancier pair of tripod mounted Neewer lights that stand off of the floor to the left and right of my desk (see photo):

I also got a foot pedal switch for them… because I’m too lazy to go behind the lights and turn them each off manually.

There are lots of other options… just search on Amazon. “Ring lights” tend to be nice and diffuse, so that’s a good category of options to look at.

*It probably happened once, but I’m a diligent procrastinator, always looking to solve problems that don’t really exist.

The Station Houston Mafia – where are they now?

(Updated October 25, 2019 to add several people I had missed)

I was having a chat with my good friend John Reale (JR), co-founder and former CEO of Station Houston, and we got onto the topic of what an amazing group of people comprised the Station Houston team. As we went through the list, it was clear to me that Station Houston attracted, nurtured and amplified a lot of local talent in Houston.

So what is the Station Houston Mafia up to now? Let’s take a look…

Moral of the story: get good at recognizing special teams and cultures like Station Houston’s and if an opportunity to join one presents itself, take it!

(Did I miss anyone or make a mistake? Let me know in the comments or on twitter at @rakeshagrawal.)

How to hire tech talent in Houston

I’m often asked you hire tech talent in Houston. Most recently my friend Krish, the founder of rapidly growing ethical jewelry maker, Doamore, asked me the question. So decided to write a quick blog post.

Short answer is… there’s is no short answer. You have to grind it out!

Probably the first step is to have a great story to tell– ie a great business thesis and a story on why you’re the one to make it happen. And then things that are a plus:

– built product or prototype
– actual users
– actual revenue

After that, some of the places to show up and tell your story and recruit:

– Station Houston has a quarterly startups gigs event. (Next one is Feb 19, 2019)
– Startup Career Fair is held once a year at TMCx – (next one is really soon – February 4th)
– Get on the roster to present at Station Houston’s monthly demo day – they usually pack the house and it’s a great place to tell your story and spread the word to potential technical recruits (I know one founder, John Kennedy, who met his partner, John Ruff, at this demo day– Mesa,

List your job postings: (this is a site created by the Houston Exponential Talent committee)
Houston Digital Jobs group on Facebook (has about 7000+ members)
Rice University has two big career fairs each academic year, one in the fall, one in the spring (which is this Friday, February 1st, 2019)

I’ll try and keep adding to this. If something’s worked well for you, post it in the comments here and I’ll add it.

On Children by Khalil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Even This Shall Pass Away by Theodore Tilton

Once in Persia reigned a king,

Who upon his signet ring

Graved a maxim true and wise,

Which, if held before his eyes,

Gave him counsel at a glance

Fit for every change and chance.

Solemn words, and these are they;

“Even this shall pass away.”

Trains of camels through the sand

Brought him gems from Samarcand;

Fleets of galleys through the seas

Brought him pearls to match with these;

But he counted not his gain

Treasures of the mine or main;

“What is wealth?” the king would say;

“Even this shall pass away.”

‘Mid the revels of his court,

At the zenith of his sport,

When the palms of all his guests

Burned with clapping at his jests,

He, amid his figs and wine,

Cried, “O loving friends of mine;

Pleasures come, but do not stay;

‘Even this shall pass away.’”

Lady, fairest ever seen,

Was the bride he crowned the queen.

Pillowed on his marriage bed,

Softly to his soul he said:

“Though no bridegroom ever pressed

Fairer bossom to his breast,

Mortal flesh must come to clay –

Even this shall pass away.”

Fighting on a furious field,

Once a javelin pierced his shield;

Soldiers, with a loud lament,

Bore him bleeding to his tent.

Groaning from his tortured side,

“Pain is hard to bear,” he cried;

“But with patience, day by day,

Even this shall pass away.”

Towering in the public square,

Twenty cubits in the air,

Rose his statue, carved in stone.

Then the king, disguised, unknown,

Stood before his sculptured name,

Musing meekly: “What is fame?

Fame is but a slow decay;

Even this shall pass away.”

Struck with palsy, sore and old,

Waiting at the Gates of Gold,

Said he with his dying breath,

“Life is done, but what is Death?”

Then, in answer to the king,

Fell a sunbeam on his ring,

Showing by a heavenly ray,

“Even this shall pass away.”

–Theodore Tilton

Newly launched: Houston Exponential TV

I’m an enthusiastic board member of Houston Exponential, whose goal it is to grow the Houston startup and innovation ecosystem. I’ve always believed that one of Houston’s greatest challenges is communications — Houston is so spread out that the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I’m super connected here and I often meet people and organizations doing amazing work that I’ve never met or heard of before.

So I’m excited that Houston Exponential has launched HXTV, a YouTube channel with video interviews of Houston entrepreneurs and innovation leaders/do-ers. You should subscribe!

And to whet your appetite, here’s an interview with one of Houston’s great entrepreneurs, Chris Church, the founder of Macrofab (which does on demand manufacturing of PCBs and electronics products):

Father’s Name

A good friend and his wife are about to become parents for the first time. Thinking about it reminded me of this story from 13 years ago:

The year was 2004 and my wife had just delivered our first child and we were at the pediatrician’s office for her first doctor’s visit. The check-in nurse handed me a clipboard, asking me to fill out my new patient paperwork.

Patient name… address… insurance info… I filled out the form.

I got to “Father’s name” and instinctively filled in “Durga Agrawal” (my Dad’s name) and continued on, with a vague sense that I had made a mistake. And then a few seconds later:


Guest post: Why I buy SAFEs

A friend of mine, who would prefer to remain anonymous, is a successful investor and also an expert in corporate governance. We’ve invested in a few deals together and over time, my friend has became comfortable with SAFE notes, somewhat to my surprise. Here’s a write-up from my friend on why:

You asked me to write about how I got comfortable with the YC SAFE as an investment vehicle. I believe we are on the same page, but for clarity I’m going to say that this discussion is about using a SAFE vs. convertible debt for first financings of early stage companies. There are other instances in which I might be agreeable to a SAFE; but, as we said, we want this to be short.

1. I will do only a SAFE with a cap. I will not do a discount structure, SAFE or convertible debt, because I am unwilling to let a company use my money to increase my price. When companies say that the discount is to compensate for the price change over time, it often is the case that the company wants a long period, perhaps two years, before the conversion and the discount is around 20%. If a company can’t increase its value more than 20% in two years, that investment isn’t interesting. This said, if a company wanted to give me a cap and a discount, that would be okay of course. (Historically, convertible debt typically did not have a cap and the tenors were short. Tenors have been longer for quite a while now (for over 10 years), but I’m only recently (past 2-3 years) seeing capped convertible debt.)

2. On the topic of a SAFE not having an interest component, my response is that this is only a pricing issue.

3. On the topic of a SAFE not being superior to equity, this simply isn’t important to me as a practical matter. I don’t recall ever seeing a convertible debt that got repaid. In a bad situation, there generally is no money to repay the convertible debt holders and, if there is any money, the SAFE’s liquidation preference puts it before the common anyway.

4. So, you probably can see now that the “benefits” of convertible debt over SAFE are not important to me as a practical matter. This brings me to the fact that I’m not only comfortable with a SAFE, I like the structure because it is administratively better for the company – no debt on the balance sheet, no dealing with the administrative burden of changing maturity dates (which typically happens as necessary), no fussing with interest calculations. Importantly, the legal fees for a SAFE typically will be cheaper than the fees for convertible debt.

5. I have had the YC SAFE reviewed by multiple lawyers with relevant expertise and they are fine with it.

6. This final topic you asked about is more complex – the risk of getting hammered by the next round of investment. This always is a risk. Even preferred issues with extensive investor protections can get hammered if a company isn’t performing well and doesn’t have choices for new money, and this situation can be exacerbated when the new money doesn’t care about its reputation. There also is the very unfortunate instance of the company not caring about its early investors, and it collaborates with the new money to hammer the existing investors. In this instance, my opinion (which I have discussed with lawyers) is that a SAFE is in a stronger position than convertible debt because the company’s board and management have a fiduciary duty to the SAFE holders since the SAFE is equity. Fiduciary duty to debt exists only in the face of insolvency. It’s a bad situation when reliance has to be on fiduciary duty, however.

Bottom line is this: is the company committed to integrity and is it capable of performing such that it can attract new money that will treat investors fairly? It is much more about this investment criterion than about the instrument. (As an aside, I will say that I caution both companies and investors regarding situations in which prior investors aren’t respected because guess who is going to be disrespected next? There are situations in which investors reasonably take a hit for poor performance as more money is sought; but, don’t do business with the bad guys.)

Cooking Indian street food… in Houston

By Anu Lal (guest post from my sister!)

India has its own street food that’s effectively unknown in the US landscape of Indian food (there are a few restaurants that specialize in Indian street food like Vik’s in Berkley and Balaji Bhavan in Houston).

Most Indians-visiting-India-from-the-US would avoid Indian street food because it doesn’t always meet Western standards for hygiene– it’s usually served streetside in open markets, prepared by bare hands, and served in dried banana leave bowls. For most of us, even the well-travelled in India, we would err on the side of being conservative to protect our delicate Western bellies from the possibility of falling sick.

When I was growing up in States, what I ate on the table was truly foreign to my friends and the country… by the time I was in my twenties I was working with folks who had had Indian roommates in college whose mothers shipped them food regularly so I would be often asked… do you know how to make aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower) or do you make those honey ball things (gulab jamuns)? Today Indian food in the States ranges from the creamy saag paneer to the flash fried spinach at a Zagat rated 27 in DC. I digress… street food is what we are talking about and even if you “LOVE” Indian food, it is unlikely you have had it… especially not this way!

For my sister’s reveal party (for 20 of which 7 were children—family only), my Mom made, at her request, street food favorites and it was perfect. Perfect in terms of tastes, textures, temperature, presentation, and consumption. The menu:

Virgin Blood Mary Shooters
Gol gappas (also known at paani puri)
Pau Bhaji
Dahi Papdi
Aloo Tikki
Eggless Flaxseed Pancakes (PPK)

My mother is the mastermind. In her book, nothing can be too “fresh” for my Mom. For example, I’m defiantly a lackey because I cook my family’s dinner mid afternoon rather than right before dinner. Her standards are high and she is demanding of us and herself in what she creates for all of us to enjoy. She loves through her food and feeding us. She loves every part of all of our being… if you could only see what she can whip up in an hour!

We are always on the sidelines learning and listening and taking direction. If you are from the subcontinent you know what “taking directions” means—- shut up, listen, learn, and do what you are told. Think about it later. My mom began cooking that morning—none of this “prep the night before” except for the chutneys (which were made free of pulp and additives, of course).

The tamarind chutney consisted of pods soaked to soften the tamarind fruit and then cooked with sugar and cumin.

The mint chutney was the family go-to: one box of mint, two bunches of cilantro, cumin seeds (1 table spoon), salt to taste, lemon juice, jalapeño.

The cooking the morning of (for a 2 party) began with cooking the garbanzos (no cans, folks!) and were seasoned with dried pomegranate seeds, ginger, tomatoes and onions.

The aloo ki tiki was stuffed with soaked and seasoned lentils

Gol gappa pani – This is the spicy tangy liquid that’s poured into the crispy gol gappa shells right before you place it whole into your mouth. To prepare it, raw rocklike mango was baked for an hour to pulpy perfection and then blended with lemon juice, mint, agave, and black salt.

Pau bhaji, the sloppy joe of India, was started by chopping cabbage, potatoes, bell peoplers, carrots, peas, onion and tomatoes… served with buttery griddle crisped slider buns.

My mother has always done this perfectly, but as we have become young adults she has humored us and allowed us to get involved in presentation and flow of the food under her tutelage. When I say we, I speak of my Delhi-hite bhabhi (sister in law) who has absorbed the ways of her ABCD family that she has married into, my sisters, my brother, and myself. We are the ops people—we get this from my PhD father, who got his PhD in industrial engineering before it was sexy to get an MBA and Harvard graduated 1500 people a year. We have DNA that makes us get things done.

Our task is simple —- take into account our food cultural needs (temperature, taste, freshness), keep the menu simple with little overlap in flavors (my Mom is big on this), presentation should be a pleasure to look at, and the food should be a joy to eat — this means flow around the table, size of the dishes (street food is often eaten standing) and of course, taste, but since my Mom was cooking this was a non issue.

Our innovation for this meal was the gol gappa and gol gappa pani service. To understand why was such a big deal you have to know the how and what of a gol gappa. Traditionally gol grapes are served to you by the vendor to you piece-by-piece while you are standing on in a market or street corner… again, most of us cannot partake because of the flora in our bellies that may get off kilter. Shells cannot be refilled with liquid because they will get soggy and spill so they must be eaten immediately. What did we do? We filled individual wine decanters with the gol gappa pani and everyone was able to serve and feed themselves for a perfect bit every time in without having to get up for each bite or shell. We went through almost 100 gol gappas and over 2 gallons of gol gappa pani. Mind you, we still had all at the other food items that we enjoyed.

BTW, this was just the food. The party was fabulous too. Take a look…