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Damn That Was Scary! Reflections on the Irrelevance of VCs & the Fallibility of Technology

May 1, 2013

Brad Svrluga

It’s only Wednesday, but it’s been a week of lessons, with two powerful ones forcibly reconfirmed for me this week:

  1. I was reminded that no technology is perfect
  2. I was confronted yet again with the day-to-day irrelevance of my job as a VC, at least as it relates to anything critical getting done in the world. 

I had a pretty crappy day on Monday. I got to the airport plenty early for a flight to San Francisco, where I had a few days of meetings. I had felt just a tiny bit queasy in the ride to the airport, but no big deal. I cleared security, got to my gate, and then started falling apart at a pretty rapid rate. I couldn’t stand up, I was losing circulation to my extremities, I was shivering as though I was standing naked in a blizzard, and my abdomen felt like it was about to explode.

I signaled to a gate attendant and told him that I would not be able to get on the flight. He asked me if I wanted him to get me an EMT. I declined, thinking, “if I were at home right now I’d just be crawling into bed, right?” But it got worse, and there was nowhere else I could go. He made the decision for me, calling the medics. They checked my vitals – low pulse, high blood pressure, blue fingers. Not good. Get an ambulance here fast. They gave me an EKG on the spot. Didn’t seem alarmed by the result.

I left the airport not by walking down the jetway onto an airplane, but by getting strapped to a stretcher and taking an elevator ride to the tarmac and a waiting ambulance.

Image

My view on the tarmac

In the ambulance, another EKG, this one with allegedly more sophisticated equipment. The data looked not too troubling, but this device also had a software algorithm that automatically draws a conclusion from the data. The algorithm said: TROUBLE. The EMT looked down at me and said “OK, we’re gonna speed up now, and the sirens are gonna come on. I don’t think it’s really bad, but we’ve got to get you to a tier one cardiac trauma center. And here, chew these four aspirin while I get an IV into you.”

Ummm….OK??!!!  I’m 40, eat pretty well, have lower than normal blood pressure and cholesterol, work out religiously 4-6 times/week, and have never had a serious medical issue in my life. WTF is going on?

10 minutes later I’m wheeled into the ER, and moments later the aspirin and the apple I’d eaten 90 minutes before come violently back up. I’m shivering uncontrollably, feel like someone has put my entire GI tract in a vice, and nobody seems to know what’s going on.

Fast forward 8 hours and I’m discharged. After a boatload of tests, there’s apparently nothing seriously wrong and the symptoms are breaking. No heart issues, brief concern about a gall bladder issue is dismissed, it’s not my appendix. Nothing they can nail with certainty. Ultimately, the conclusion is I caught a very, very nasty, very, very fast acting virus. Trust me, this is a virus you do not want to meet.

After some emails went out canceling all my meetings for a couple days, I spent the bulk of yesterday resting and recovering. By noon today I was back in the saddle, for the most part. And now, as I think back over the past few days, I’m struck by the two things I mentioned above:

  1. The inherently imperfect nature of technology, at least as it relates to medicine
  2. The relative irrelevance of our roles as VCs

#1 is pretty straightforward: I had what ultimately proved to be a very painful but not actually serious situation. Humans in the field checked my vitals and did basic diagnostic procedures and did not think I was having a heart attack. They looked at the raw data from the EKG and all their training said the same thing. They sent the data ahead to the hospital while we were driving, and a doctor there concluded the same thing. But the software said I was in trouble. So we drove 80mph with sirens blaring.

Of course, there’s no penalty for caution, with the exception I suppose of some added costs to our healthcare system. But this was not the first time that I’ve seen automated technology fail in a medical setting – my first born son ended up in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first week of his life, and over the course of that week we saw a number of false alarms from the supposedly infallible machines. 

Bottom line, there are places in life where technology and human analysis are both essential, and medicine is certainly one of them. We can send robots to mine rocks on Mars, but we’re not going to have robots as EMTs and ER attending physicians anytime soon. Driverless ambulances? Sure. But let’s keep the woman in back with me a human.

As for #2, I was unannounced out of commission for 48 hours. I’ve got 12 companies that I’m responsible for in our portfolio. Each one of those companies is moving ahead at 110mph on their own super aggressive timeline. Pluck a key senior manager out of any of those companies unannounced for 48 hours and some sh@# is going to hit the fan.

I disappeared for 48 hours though and I’m not sure anyone noticed. Sure, it was a relatively quiet couple of days in that none of our companies were dealing with a crisis of any sort. But still, the nature of what we do as VCs is such that this type of disappearance can occur largely without notice. And that’s for me, someone whose reputation is that of a pretty seriously engaged, hands-on VC.

It’s a healthy reminder to me and my peers in the venture business about our role in the ecosystem we’re a part of. It’s easy for us to feel like we’re awfully important at times, but experiences like mine this week are good reminders that we’re nowhere close to the most important players in the game. The truly important players are the ones whose absence for a few days would’ve caused some trouble.

In the end, it leaves me reflecting fondly on just how fortunate I am to be here. In a macro sense, a good health scare really does make you appreciate what you do have – your health, your family, your own unique flavor of existence.

And more professionally specific, it’s good for all of us to be reminded just where we sit in the world. I feel truly blessed to be able to play a role in the technology ecosystem that is driving so much of what’s exciting and important in our country and the global economy. But I know I’m at best an occasional facilitator, or, by way of the cash I can inject, an oil man for a very small collection of companies trying to make a difference.

Regardless, it’s good to be alive, and a pleasure to be in this business. But be careful how much you rely on that damn technology…

6 Comments

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  1. meredith collins (@meredithcollinz) #
    May 1, 2013

    Whoa! Glad you are on the mend! Smart to use life’s interruptions for a moment of introspection and gratitude….and if you get bored doing the VC thing, a couple of suspense novels could be in your future – good, exciting writing! Glad there was a happy ending!

    • May 1, 2013

      Thanks – I’ll stick to the VC thing. Afraid I’ve now run out of material for suspense novels. I can’t make it up.

  2. jeremym@fsastore.com #
    May 1, 2013

    Glad all is well, its interesting I got this as I was recently thinking about one of your posts about the “right time is now.” I took a a lot of value from that post and recently saw it play out in a candidate we were trying to hire that we were just a couple days short of adding him to the roster before it was too late. So, I wouldn’t discount your involvement and importance in shaping the roles for founders and companies. you might not be missed for 48 hours but I guarantee if you walk away for good you’d find all if not most of your portfolio companies crawling back to get some time with you so they can get advice, leadership or know how on one of the thousands of business decisions we make or contemplate each day.

    Glad all is well.

    Jeremy

    • May 1, 2013

      Thanks for the thoughts, Jeremy. Glad you got something out of a prior post. And hopefully there’s some truth to your suggestion that people might notice a bit more time away, but genuinely, the awareness that one is by no means critical to the day-to-day workings of things is a humbling and helpful realization. It will also leave me even more guilt-free when I take off for vacation this summer!

  3. May 1, 2013

    Brad – wow! The Ticketfly Team certainly missed you on Tuesday! I’ve never heard of a virus like that. Glad you’re back in the saddle and thanks for the post. – Dan

    • May 1, 2013

      Will be back out there soon. Might pick a different airline though – karma improvement.

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