Mentors 6/18: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way

I spent the day yesterday at the Disney Accelerator meeting with each of the teams and then had dinner with the CEOs and a lead mentor for each company. While I’m proud of all the Techstars programs, some of what I heard yesterday, especially around mentor engagement in the Disney program was remarkable. Our premise when we started doing branded accelerators with large companies was that we’d get deep mentor involvement from execs at the company we are partnering with. In Disney’s case, the access, exposure, and support of the Disney executives as mentors for the 11 companies in the program has been extraordinary.

As I continue my series on the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, which I’m planning to turn into an book called “Give First” that FG Press will publish early next year, I come to Manifesto Item #6: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way.

When I reflect on my best mentors, they are very long term relationships where I hope they’ve now gotten as much from me as I’ve gotten from them. I call this “peer mentoring” and – while it can start as an equal relationship, it’s magical when it evolves from a mentor – mentee relationship.

Following are two examples from my own life.

Len Fassler is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the honor of knowing. Len and his partner Jerry Poch bought my first company in 1993. I still remember the first time I met Len, sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boston, wondering to myself “who is this guy and what does he want?” After Len and Jerry bought my company, the two of them took me under their wing and exposed me to doing deals. In addition to having my company acquired, I worked with them on the diligence team for a number of other acquisitions. They were both incredibly patient with me since I knew nothing about M&A or investments, and when I started making angel investments a few months after my company was acquired, they followed on, invested with me, and invited me into some of the companies they were investing in. After I left AmeriData, my relationship with each of them blossomed, but in different ways. Jerry and I made some VC investments together, but Len and I started several companies together. One of them – Interliant (where we were co-chairman) – was a huge success for a while, reaching a peak market cap of about $3 billion on NASDAQ. The company was decimated by the collapse of the Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt. Len and I spent  thousands of hours together during this time and the amount I learned from working side by side with him can’t be quantified or categorized. We continued to work on other stuff together after Interliant, and enjoyed some successes that were sweet and satisfying after the ending pain of the Interliant experience.

If someone said I was a vessel for perpetuating and evolving Len’s business approach and personal philosophy to people throughout time and space, I’d accept that.

At the same time, I’ve heard Len say many times that’s he’s learned a huge amount from working with me. I know I am the key reason he no longer wears a tie at work, but the dance and intermingling of our experiences, personal philosophies, joys (highs), miseries (lows), and shared time has shaped both of us. Len’s 82 and I’m 48, so he’s definitely the mentor and I’m the mentee in the relationship. But after over 20 years of working together, we have a deep, intimate, peer relationship.

Charlie Feld is my dad’s brother / my uncle. I referred to him as Uncle Charlie the other day in my post From Punch Cards to Implants. He introduced me to my first company when I was 11 and allowed me to tag along with him for many years into my mid-20s. I sat in executive meetings at DEC and Lotus that I had no business being a part of, learned about EIS’s when I was a teenager, got early access to Compaq portables that hadn’t been released yet, and generally got exposed to how IT and MIS worked in large companies. Charlie started his own company, The Feld Group, in 1992, when my company (Feld Technologies) was five years old. Suddenly, Charlie and I were having peer discussions about our respective consulting businesses. After I sold my company and started investing in companies in 1994, Charlie and I talked regularly about the Internet, which was just emerging as something that large companies should pay attention to. At the same time, Charlie exposed me to what he was doing to re-architect and modernize enormously complex and disastrous legacy systems at places like Delta and Burlington Northern. In addition to helping me understand a number of fundamental things about technology at scale, I got exposed to the complexity of very large organizations, both from the top down and outside in.

In 2000, I invested via Mobius Venture Capital in The Feld Group and joined the board. This took our relationship to a new level. While I was now investor / partner / board member, the intellectual and emotional intimacy of our relationship increased. The Feld Group grew rapidly during this time period until it was acquired in 2004 by EDS. While aspects of my universe during this time were excruciating due to the bursting of the Internet bubble, my experience with Charlie and The Feld Group was grounding and enlightening as it gave me a window into the success and importances of enterprise IT while all the startups around me were melting down.

As with my relationship with Len, I feel that my relationship with Charlie is a peer relationship today. While he’s 25 years older than me, we learn from each other in every interaction. We continue to work closely together – Charlie’s newest book “The Calloway Way” is being published by FG Press and we are going to do some book events together to help both executives and entrepreneurs understand the magic of Wayne Calloway and his management approach.

Each of these relationships are long term ones – Len and I since 1993 and Charlie and I since I was born in 1965. I treasure every moment I have with each of them. Sure – we have conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, but they have been profound in shaping my development as a business person and a human. As mentors, they gave first in every sense of the word. And I hope they feel like I’ve given back at least as much.

  • David L

    True story, nice examples of how mentor relationships evolve. I tried coining the term frientor and am still holding my breath. Often it seems that the mentoring demand exceeds the available supply. I’ve also been profoundly shaped by two mentors. As I began to realize the impact these people were having on me I became hungry for more. Naivety and hubris lead me to believe that I could reach out to others and develop more mentors in the traditional sense. Not so much. I reflected on what I was really seeking and how I might access more mentorship using an expanded definition. Today, so many people make exceptional thinking available via blogs (thanks for this one Brad), books (their best thinking on a specific topic), podcasts, classes, conferences etc. Paid mentorship? Yep. Sound investment? Undoubtedly. Many things are better in limited quantities, mentors included. I’ve learned as much from mentees as I have from mentors and there’s a unique humility to be gained from both sides of the relationship.

    • Definitely agree mentorship is best in limited quantities. Mentorship in mass quantity just ends up being explaining the concept over and over, continually starting from scratch and having to work your way to the details.

  • What a great post Brad. It really expresses a thought I’ve had for a long time. As I get older, I think about how much I learn from those that are younger. Just as important, I realize that I give people that are older than me knowledge. It is the blessing of middle age, truly it is.

    • Tom Blue – Lead411

      I totally agree. I am 40, have a degree in entrepreneurship, have founded multiple companies, but absolutely need a mentor. You should never stop learning and there is much to learn from the younger generation.

  • love when companies I worked with reach out a couple of years later just to chat.

    • Yeah – that’s a joy, especially when they are doing well.

  • I remember well Charlie Feld and The Feld Group, as they were in my vocabulary during my enterprise IT days.

    The best relationships are two-way, definitely!

    • He’s still as brilliant as he was then. You’ll enjoy his new book “The Calloway Way”

  • Wow, these are powerful stories man. I’m all f#%^ up now. That’s what they mean when they talk about “food for thoughts”. It feels as though I just had dinner, metaphorically speaking.

    I look forward to the book, it will be a great tool to use to help foster the startup community in Toronto.

    • Thx! Glad to be feeding you.

  • … Another blow to my ego on the same day was listening to Danielle Morrill and reading her blog. God that gal is smart!

    I used to think that I was quite the little genius and drink my own Koolaid. Now, after following the smartest cats, I feel dumber that a moron. Never too late to become humble I suppose…

    • Humilty is a great trait.

  • I was just thinking/wondering when your next Mentor post was going to come out. Thanks Brad, enjoyed the post…good timing as I am volunteering to be a mentor and can only hope that I could be of some help. This series is inspiring. Good luck on the book 🙂

    • Thx. I hope to crank the rest of them out in October so I can start pulling the book together.

  • It was awesome having you here last week at Disney Accelerator, Brad! Thanks for spending the time with our companies and our mentors.

    • Thanks Cody. I had a great time and you are doing an awesome job.