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Thanks for the all notes of concern about my bike accident on Thursday. I’m doing a lot better – still a little fuzzy and tired feeling – but on the mend. I’ve gotten confirmation that it wasn’t a hit and run – I clearly lost control of the bike during a turn, crashed into a curb, went over, and landed on my head. Lights out for a while.
I’m done biking. I’ve never really been a cyclist – I’ve always been a runner. Given that I’ve now had two single bike accidents that were 100% my fault, I’m clearly not cut out for being on a two-wheeled vehicle. So – back to running.
Over the weekend I took it easy and just let my mind drift around. A lot of friends came over to visit us which was nice. We hung out in our backyard by the pool, enjoyed the sunshine, and I let my mind drift around.
I had some weird dreams – some were clearly PTSD – but some were stuff I’ve read recently. I listened to Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion on Audible over the past two months on my bike rides and runs and lots of weird associations with it came up in my dreams, which, if you’ve read the books, is delightfully recursive.
All of this kept leading me back to robots and drones. We are investors in a number of companies in this arena, including Sphero, 3D Robotics, and Modular Robotics, and I think we are just at the beginning of a decade long revolution that has been a long time coming.
My friends at Techstars agree and last week launched – with Qualcomm – the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. I mentioned it on my blog last week when writing about Mentors 8/18: Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts and I realized I missed a key nuance in the post, which was about engagement with new things.
It’s nice to talk about robots and drones. But if you don’t engage with them right now, you aren’t going to understand them, and the amazingly rapid trajectory they are going to be heading on. Reading science fiction can give you a sense of where they are going, but getting a drone right now from 3D Robotics, buying the new Ollie robot from Sphero, or grabbing the ModRobotics MOSS robot will change your understanding of these things. Oh – and these things are amazing fun.
Techstars and Qualcomm aren’t fooling around in this arena. Qualcomm gets this market – they’ve already been focused on it with their Snapdragon processor and work with Brain Corporation – and their participation in the program will be invaluable. The Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars, is another big leap forward for Qualcomm as they establish themselves as a leader in this market.
And – if you are an entrepreneur and want to go deep here along with hanging out in San Diego, check out the robotics revolution.
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.
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.
I’m not a big city guy, so one of my favorite things to do when I find myself in a big city is get up early, before the city wakes up, and go for a run. There’s something about the silence echoing throughout a vast developed physical space such as LA that calms me down and builds up some reserves for me for the day.
I was in LA all day yesterday – starting with a Fireside Chat organized by David C Murphy. It was a full room of entrepreneurs and what I hope was a stimulating and useful conversation for them. I got in an Uber and traveled across town to Nix Hydra, a company run by two remarkable young women that we recently invested in. I got in another Uber and returned to Santa Monica where I attended the Innovators Collective Dinner, hung out with some old friends, and met a few new ones. Today I’m at the Disney Accelerator and tomorrow I’m at Oblong.
At dinner, I sat with my long time friend Matt McCall. Matt and I were on the FeedBurner board together and he’s got a powerful connection between LA and Chicago – another city with an incredibly thriving startup community. Matt’s part of Pritzker Group Venture Capital which has offices in Chicago and LA as a result of where JB Pritzker and Tony Pritzker call home (Chicago and LA respectively). While they invest nationally, they have deep roots in both cities and are key players in the respective startup communities, along with the cities at large.
As I was talking to Matt, it rolled around in my head that there are a lot of similarities in the growth of both the Chicago and LA startup communities. Our engagement with each is similar – we have Techstars programs in each (Techstars Chicago and Disney Accelerator), we’ve made investments in each over the years, and they are each cities that I have personal affinity for and have spent a lot of time in, even though I’m not a big city kid.
I came back to an email in my inbox from Troy Henikoff, the Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, which closed the loop on this thought for me. Troy has been a key part of the development of the Chicago startup community and we’ve been good friends from the moment he first reached out to me about developing an accelerator in Chicago.
Troy reminded me about the Chicago Venture Summit, which is coming up on 10/14 and 10/15. The lineup looks incredible and includes keynotes from folks like Travis Kalanick (Uber), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco Chief Technology & Strategy Officer), Ted Leonsis (Revolution Partners and previous AOL CEO), and Peter Thiel. Not surprising, JB Pritzker is one of the leaders of the event. In the note that Troy sent me, there are confirmed attendees from VC firms such as Founders Fund, DFJ, NEA, GE Ventures, Motorola Ventures, Accel, Revolution, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Yes, it’s a serious event worth attending if you can.
Since I started thinking about Startup Communities in 2010, a few years before I wrote the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I believed the discussion about entrepreneurship would spread far and wide. If we could have the amazing things going on in Boulder that we were experiencing at the time, there was no reason every major city in the world couldn’t have a vibrant startup community. It’s a joy to see this developing fast, and in a powerful and sustainable way, in cities like Chicago and LA. Sure, there’s always been significant entrepreneurial activities in both cities, but the essence of the startup community in both places feels different – and more powerful – this time around.