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As we continue deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, element #8 is Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts.
But first, it’s worth noting that yesterday Techstars announced its newest accelerator program, this time the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. This is our first accelerator with Qualcomm, our first accelerator in San Diego, and all about Robotics. I’m psyched about the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator Mentor List, which includes a great mix of experienced Techstars mentors along with some new ones.
When I talk to a new mentor, I suggest that they focus on one program during the accelerator program. There’s a tendency as a mentor to skim or do a fly by, where you spend a little time with every company. In a typical Techstars program, this is between 10 and 13 companies, so if you spend an hour a week over the course of the program as a mentor, that’s about an hour per company in total.
In contrast, if you spend a few hours getting to know all the companies in the first two weeks and then commit an hour over the remaining ten weeks to one company, you can really go deep with them as a mentor.
We structure the Techstars programs so the first month is “mentor madness.” The first week of Techstars is total chaos as all of the entrepreneurs and mentors are getting up to speed. The next week or two is endless mentor meetings – lots of “get to know you sessions” – but a huge amount of substance in the mix for the founders. They suffer from a lot of mentor whiplash, where they get feedback from some mentors that contracts feedback from other mentors. This builds incredible muscle early, as the founders learn that the feedback from mentors is merely data that they have to process, not directions that they have to pursue or advice they have to listen to.
By week three, we are starting to more aggressively match lead mentors with companies. By the end of the first month, the best companies have engaged with, for least an hour a week, between three and five lead mentors. Each of these lead mentors has committed to go deep with the company and the best lead mentors limit themselves to one, or possible two (if they are very experienced mentors) companies during the program.
This doesn’t mean that the lead mentor doesn’t spend any time with any of the other companies. Many of the mentors, especially the experienced ones, spend more than an hour a week mentoring at Techstars. But they put extra focus and commitment on one of the companies.
They do this year after year, program after program. One doesn’t magically become a great mentor – you learn how to do it. I’ve seen lots of experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers show up for the first time as a mentor, engage, and just be horribly ineffective. At Techstars, we give all of the mentors feedback, try to help them to be better in real time, and when necessary, be very direct about how they can improve.
But nothing helps a mentor improve more than practice. Continuing to try new things, see how it works, get the feedback loop of mentoring a company, seeing the result, and helping some more. And most importantly, listening to the feedback from the entrepreneurs on what they think is helping them and what is getting in their way, slowing them down, confusing them, or undermining them.
Every mentor has her own style. But all mentors have limited capacity to mentor. Go deep with one company at a time, but do it over and over and over again.
Techstars Boulder Demo Day was last week and it was the best one yet. As I got up on stage to close things out, I was incredibly proud of all of the entrepreneurs, but even more proud as I looked out at the audience and saw many of the mentors who make Techstars the experience that it is.
Element seven of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Be Responsive.
Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s remarkable to me the number of people who don’t internalize this.
Being responsive means more than just responding to email and phone calls. It means more than being on time to meetings, closing the loop on things you commit to doing, and being intellectually and emotionally available to your mentee. These things are “hygiene issues” – if you can’t at least do this you aren’t going to be an effective mentor.
Being responsive means to be present. To engage with the mentee. To put yourself in her shoes and try to really understand what is going on.
Ponder some of the synonyms for the word responsive:
- quick to react to
- receptive to
- open to suggestions about
- amenable to
- flexible to
- sensitive to
- sympathetic to
- aware of
Receptive, amenable, flexible, sensitive, sympathetic, and aware. This requires real emotional intelligence on the part of the mentor.
Everyone has different ways of prioritizing their time and different modes for engaging with others. Understanding this about yourself, and then being clear and consistent about it, is important if you want to be an effective mentor.
You get to define your approach and what you mean by being responsive. While my approach is simply one way, I’ll use it as an example. I focus on three dimensions – a people hierarchy, interaction dynamics, and baseline expectations.
My people hierarchy is well-defined and has been for a long time. In descending order of importance (and responsiveness), I have me, Amy, my family, my partners, our staff, close friends, our investors, the CEOs of the companies we are investors in, the founders of the companies we are investors in, the employees of the companies we are investors in, our co-investors, service providers (lawyers, bankers, accountants) we work with, and then everyone else. I think of this as concentric circles with Amy and my family at the center, then my partners, then staff / friends / investors / CEOs / founders, then employees / co-investors / service providers, and then everyone else. I rarely rank individuals ahead of others within one of the circles, but I do plenty of short term prioritization based on whatever is going on.
My interaction dynamics are fuzzier. I hate the telephone so I reserve it for use with people I have a close relationship with. For everyone else, I’d rather interact via email. I used to travel constantly, but I’ve cut that down substantially in the past year, so I do a lot of video conferences. I don’t like having sitting meetings – I’d rather go for a walk, so I have 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute routes around town. I’m fidgety when I’m in a meeting that lasts longer than an hour, but I’ve trained myself to be in the moment for the meeting however long it takes and, if I can’t hang in, excuse myself for a little while and regroup. Overall, when I’m with another human, I’ve tried to shift away from multi-tasking and instead concentrate on one thing at a time, focusing on whatever is going on. When I’m not with humans, but in front of my computer, I shift into a “cover a wide range of things” mode, where I do a lot of short tasks switching between them.
My baseline expectations are straightforward. I respond to every email I get. I return all the phone calls I get – although often by email. I try to close the loop on anything someone has asked me to do. When I’m with someone, I am with that person.
Now – I don’t get a A+ on all of this, nor do I view that as important. It’s as not static – I expect that these will change over time. But by writing it down and committing to it, I define the structure in which I am responsive. But remember, these are the hygiene issues. This is the framework in which one can then be responsive.
If I did all of these things, but never listened, wasn’t receptive, flexible, or sympathetic I’d be a crummy mentor. By having empathy, being able to engage emotionally with a mentee, and being aware of what the mentee is going through, one becomes responsive to them and their needs.
Today Techstars announced an “equity back guarantee” for any company that goes through the Techstars program starting in 2015.
We’ve been talking about this for a while. One of Techstars’ matras is #givefirst which builds off my “give before you get” philosophy that I highlight in my book Startup Communities as a key part to building a great startup community.
As we talked about this, we realized that we could apply this directly to Techstars. We periodically encounter founders during the selection process who question the value of Techstars. It’s not that they don’t value it, it’s that they aren’t sure it’ll be worth it. Our solution historically has been to introduce them to Techstars alumni, which almost always results in the founders understanding the value of the program and jumping in with both feet.
One day we started bouncing around the cliche “let’s put our money where our mouth is” which quickly morphed into “let’s put our equity where our mouth is.” We are extremely confident in the value of Techstars and know that after someone goes through Techstars, they value it, often much higher than the cost of the program in the equity that they’ve given us to participate in it.
So we decided to launch an equity back guarantee. Our terms for going through Techstars are unchanged, but if at the end of the program you aren’t delighted, you can ask for some or all of your equity back. The only requirement is that you have to give us detailed feedback on what you didn’t find useful about Techstars.
While I wish my lawyers, accountants, and investment bankers offered a money back guarantee, I accept that isn’t changing anytime soon. However, I encourage all accelerators and entrepreneurial service providers to consider offering this. After all, our mission is to help entrepreneurs.
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 Financing 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?
The second element of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back). It’s extraordinarily simple while being profoundly hard.
It’s simple because it’s easy to say “I’m doing this without any expectations.” That felt good, right? You are going to be a good mentor, helping another up and coming entrepreneur, and it’ll be good karma. It’s good marketing – who doesn’t like people to say things about him like “Joe is such a good guy – he helped me without expecting anything back.” Simple, right?
It’s profoundly hard because this just isn’t human nature, especially in a business context. We live in a transactional world, constantly deciding where to invest our time to get the best ROI – there’s even a phrase for that which is “return on invested time.” We worry about things like reputational effects, being cautious of spending too much time with low impact activities or unknown people, while being drawn to the spotlight and well-known people, even if the activities are hollow and lack substance or value. We feel overwhelmed with the base level of work we have and struggle to justify spending time on activities with an unknown impact on what is directly in front of us. We prioritize how we spend our time, gravitating towards things where we can see the payoff.
I have two constructs I use that have broken this cycle for me which are at the core at being an awesome mentor: Give Before You Get and Random Days.
Give Before You Get is a cousin to a concept many of us are familiar with called “pay it forward.” With pay it forward, someone once did something for you to help you with your life or your career and you are now helping someone else out to “pay it forward” as compensation for this previous support. While nice, it’s still a transaction concept, which is where give before you get differs. In give before you get, you enter into a relationship without defining anything transactional – you “give” in whatever form is appropriate, but you have no idea what you are going to “get” back. Now, this isn’t altruism – you will get something back – you just don’t know when, from who, in what currency, or in what magnitude. You enter into the relationship non-transactionally and are willing to continue giving without a defined transactional return.
This is at the core of my Startup Communities thesis. To truly activate a startup community you have to get everyone in the startup community putting energy into the community, essentially giving before they get. If you create this culture, magical things happen very quickly as an enormous amount of kinetic energy goes into the startup community, generating rapid activity, results, and powerful second order effects.
In the construct of give before you get, it’s important to remember this isn’t altruism, which is why I’m repeating that notion. You will get something back, you just don’t have any expectations around what it will be. That’s unnatural for humans, and is the fundamental difference between a mentor and and an advisor. An advisor says “I’ll help you if you give me a $3,000 / month retainer and 1% of your company.” A mentor says simply, “How can I help?”
Random Days is one way to practice being a great mentor and giving before you get. I started doing random days in 2005 after a long history of random 15 minute meetings – something I’ve always done, but at some point realized I couldn’t effectively squeeze them into the normal flow of my day anymore. So I started setting aside about a day a month to do a dozen or so random 15 minute meetings. Some magical things, including Techstars, have come from Random Days. The trick to an amazing random day experience is to meet with anyone (zero filter) and let the 15 minutes be entirely about them and their agenda. I typically start each meeting with “Hi, I’m Brad Feld, the next 15 minutes are about whatever you want to talk about.” That establishes that I have no expectations and I’m fully available and present for the person I’m meeting with.
In a busy world with constant performance pressure and expectations around outcomes, the concept of give before you get and the idea of having a periodic random day may seem ridiculous. If you are thinking “that sounds nice and utopian, but I don’t have time for that” or “yeah Brad, whatever, but you are in a different position in life than I am”, I challenge you to rethink your position. I’ve been doing this since my first company in my early 20s. I’ve built the notion of give before you get into the core of my value system. I’ve allowed myself to continually be open to randomness and many of the incredible things I’ve gotten to be involved in have come from one of these random interactions. Most importantly, I continually am amazed by what comes back to me, over and over again, from people I’ve put energy, time, and resources into without any expectation of a return. The payoff, financial and non-financial, has been profound for me.
So try it. Don’t shift to a 100% give before you get mentality, but allocate 10% of your time to it. Find ways to give before you get. And if you are a mentor for an accelerator, a younger person, a peer, or someone in your organization, make sure you internalize the idea of giving before you get and expecting nothing in return. You’ll be delighted with what you do get back.