Mentors 3/18: Be Authentic – Practice What You Preach

In today’s installation of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, we deconstruct #3: Be Authentic – Practice What You Preach.

Authenticity has once again become a trendy word. When I started blogging in 2004, it was all about transparency. Fred Wilson led the way and I happily followed. And if you want to really understand transparency, look at Rand Fishkin’s epic post on Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financingย in 2012. Now that’s transparency.

Today, it’s all about authenticity. I’ve always been amused when someone says “I’m authentic” or “I’m transparent” or “I’m entrepreneur friendly” or “I’m a value-added investor.” Whenever I hear that, I automatically insert the word “not” in between “I’m” and the rest of the phrase.

It’s not about stating that you are authentic. It’s about practicing what you preach, all the time, and in every way. Sure – you will make mistakes, but when you do you need to own them, apologize, correct things, and move forward.

As a mentor, this is especially important. The entrepreneurs you are mentoring look up to you. They immediately vest responsibility in you as a mentor. Authenticity in your behavior is key to maintaining this relationship, which you get by default.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’m doing this as a favor to the entrepreneur so they have to put up with me.” Wrong. You are setting an example for the entrepreneur. They are watching your every move. In some ways, the pressure is even higher on you as a mentor since your behavior is going to rub off on your mentees.

This comes up in all contexts. It can be as simple as being on time. If you emphasize to the entrepreneur the importance of shipping on time, but then are consistently 15 minutes late to meetings, that’s not particularly authentic. It can be around content. If you stress the importance of a personal voice on the company blog, but then have a marketing team handle your own content for your VC firm, that’s not particularly authentic. If you have a public persona of being calm and constructive, but then throw temper tantrums to get the attention of your mentees, how do you think that’ll impact them.

Now, you’ll be late. You’ll have infrastructure the entrepreneur doesn’t. And you’ll get frustrated and lose your temper sometimes. But when you do, own it, and apologize. Let the entrepreneur know when you are inconsistent in your behavior. When they realize it’s ok to screw up, as long as you recognize it, they’ll understand the power of truly being authentic.

Focus on the phrase “practice what you preach.” That’s the core of authenticity in a mentor / mentee relationship. You are preaching regularly as a mentor. Do your words match your actions?

  • Authenticity is a foundational principle for trust, the touchstone. A mentor relationship can never be optimal without trust. Certainly there is a level of trust garnered from the bona fides of the mentor, but those really are just table stakes, what you have to possess to begin the process of mentoring…. they get you to the first conversation. To move forward, to help your mentee unearth the real challenges, the fears that hold them back, they must be able to trust. They must witness words and actions matching up, they must see that opinions and recommendations are built on reality. Mentoring is not just about offering advice or telling stories, it’s about establishing a connection that let’s someone take a step where they see no path… to move forward despite their unvoiced fears…. and the surest way to establish this trust is demonstrated by authentic actions.

  • Boils2

    …a good life lesson too.

  • Jason Calacanis once said “When Brad Feld speaks, I listen”.

    I thought it was interesting at the time, but now I think I know why he said it.

    Coming from you this blog post makes yet another very powerful point, thank you. I’m not a VC, but I’ve done some mentoring, and it’s great to be reminded of what we should all be doing using our common sense.

    Now…following the Moz link I came across the “I’m a VC” video.
    You guys can laugh at yourselves — that’s awesome! LOL!

    And what a *nice* collection of guitars on the wall in that video. Is that yours Brad? At a glance I noticed the Hummingbird, and also of course the Strat.

    • I listen too, and try to internalize.

    • The guitars are my partner Jason Mendelson’s. He’s an amazing musician and has a great collection.

      And, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no business laughing at anyone else!


    Good post. I think it should stretch to every business executive even non-mentors.
    I’ve communicated with start up executives that have told me to reserve time in my schedule on a particular day for a phone call. Then they aren’t at work that day!
    It’s really really really hard to find good people to team up with. Be it teaming up as co-founders or teaming up as vendor-client or teaming up to restore an old car.

    • The “call me tomorrow at 2pm” in my book is code for “don’t call me.”


        I don’t understand. Then how can people set appointments to talk via phone? When I say call Wednesday at 2pm. I mean it and I make time for the call. I actually write it in my appointment book.

        • Yeah – I should have said “call me tomorrow” is code for “don’t call me.” If you actually schedule a time, that’s super bad form. And I had it happen to me – an investment banker trying to get my business scheduled a call for 330pm today and totally blew me off. Oh well.


            I’m sorry Brad but I just don’t get your point. How do people schedule calls, meetings etc. if they don’t spec a day and time?

          • I know many people who say “just call me tomorrow” or “just call me when you have time.” I’ve given up on that – if it’s not scheduled, it’s unlikely to happen.


            OK. Yes I agree. The “If you actually schedule a time, that’s super bad form.” threw me off. I thought you meant if you discuss a time for the call it’s not good.


            I was thinking a bit more about your experience and have some thoughts. If you scheduled the appointment via email you can’t be sure the person got your email(s). If you scheduled the appointment by talking with the person directly, either by phone or in person, then you’re sure they knew.
            All that being said. If the person didn’t encounter some problem causing them to not make the appointment. Then isn’t it a good thing you found out the person is not right for doing business with now instead of later? If the miss appointments for no reason then it’s better to know that before you stuck with them.

  • Brad,

    Great post. In the bucket of authenticity, I would throw honesty as well. For me, that means being comfortable asking questions and not pretending to know everything, simply by virtue of being a mentor. In one particular pitch practice, in front of the entire class, I openly admitted to not knowing what DIY meant (do it yourself) and I think I was in the minority of one. While it would have been easy to get red-faced with embarrassment, I was actually comfortable in that situation, showing that mentors don’t know everything either. To practice what we preach means being present, being on time, and standing behind your words with actions. Another example of this that jumps to mind: in one pitch practice, I told a founder that he should spend a morning in Washington Square Park and pitch over and over again until he had an audience of five people who stood and listened to the entire pitch. This suggestion was to boost his confidence, his energy, and forced him to get comfortable with his pitch. Immediately after suggesting something that drastic, and knowing that he would be uncomfortable doing it (and might not go without someone supporting him), I volunteered to go with him and pinned him down to a time and date. We went to Washington Square Park, he nailed it, and proceeded to nail his demo day pitch a week later. So the combination of admitting to not knowing something (and being honest in this respect) and practicing what you preach leads to a tremendous relationship between mentor and founder.

    • I love the Washington Square Park story!

      I agree that honesty goes hand in hand with authenticity.

      And, saying “I don’t know” is one of the most powerful, and authentic, phrases on the planet.

  • Wouldn’t it be a better world if corporations and everyone were more authentic? What would annual reports read like?

    • It would be a much better world. When I was co-chairman of a public company in the late 1990’s I learned first hand what the lawyers did to everything. Given how things worked, almost any personality is neutralized. Just listen to any public company earnings call. The first part is the CEO and CFO reading a script. The second part is the CEO and CFO trying to answer the questions without saying anything that wasn’t in the script.

      • And the third part is the lawyers telling the company management team not to take any risk and innovate because they could get in trouble (thinking about traditional exchanges and financial services products, or traditional banks and fin services products)

        • Yup. It’s not just financial services businesses. Once the lawyers are making the decisions it’s all over.

      • AcEmpire

        We have created a new e-commerce platform and put it on a global market. AcEmpire is a service provider which helps businesses and individuals to find their dreams holiday accommodations, luxury and exotic cars, private jets, private helicopters, private yachts. These are 5 major products that we specialise at. We make the calls, bookings and the arrangements to save our customers precious time. Now we are ready to take this to the next level and looking for an investment that will help us grow.Check our website at and find out how we work. If you think we got potential, believe in us and like what we do and if you would be willing to invest in our company and maybe even work alongside with us, please do not hesitate and get in touch with us.


    • yazinsai

      I don’t know about annual reports, but I’d love to see corporations engage with each other on Twitter ๐Ÿ™‚
      Verizon vs. Netflix? Samsung vs. Apple? SmallCo vs. BigCo

      • C’mon. Twitter isn’t an interactive/listening device…’s a soapbox….right? hehe

  • Authenticity brings good energy into existence.

    Radical authenticity brings it into the forefront.

    For good and for bad, we’re here to learn (and we do).

  • You and Fred have changed the VC landscape over the last decade because of your authenticity, ethics, common sense, focus on the big picture, honesty, contribution to society… – I can go on and on. You have managed to blend the “authentic” world with the “business” world – unlike the “Barbarians” of the past, dare I say. We all owe you a debt of gratitude, or better still, have the responsibility to help contribute and give back however we can. Chapeau!

  • Samantha

    Great post. Actions prove who someone is. Words prove who they wanna be.