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I love origin stories. Yesterday at the kickoff of Techstars FounderCon, I stood on stage with David Cohen and David Brown as we went through the origin story of Techstars, followed by a build up of what has happened over the past seven amazing years. As the 50+ people working for Techstars stood on the stage at the end, I got chills. Afterwards I got feedback from a number of the 500 people in the audience that it was extremely useful context for them, many of whom joined the extended Techstars network in the past two years.
A few weeks ago, FG Press released the first book in its Techstars series titled No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur. It’s written by David Brown and is the origin story of David Brown and David Cohen’s first company Pinpoint Technologies.
If you recognize David Cohen’s name, but not David Brown’s, you have a new David in your world. Brown was one of the four co-founders of Techstars (with Cohen, me, and Jared Polis). A little over a year ago, he joined Techstars full time as one of the three managing partners – the other two being David Cohen and Mark Solon. Brown runs the organization day to day and Solon manages all the fund and capital formation activity.
While I’ve known Brown for seven years, Cohen and Brown have worked together for 25 years. Pinpoint was a self-funded company that was their first entrepreneurial endeavor. Like many other startups, it had many ups and downs but the David’s created a very successful, profitable business that was acquired by ZOLL (a Boston-based public company) in 1999. Brown stayed at ZOLL for a while, left, and then came back and ran ZOLL Data (the division based on Pinpoint) until last year when he finally left for good.
When I read the first draft of No Vision All Drive I immediately realized this was a powerful origin story. It shows the personal and professional development of Brown and Cohen as they grew from two guys trying to figure out how to start their business to leaders of a real company. Brown’s reflections on the experience are detailed and demonstrates his incredible talents as an operator. If you know Cohen, after reading this book, you understand why they are perfect partners and have worked so well together over the past 25 years.
It’s a delight to get to work with both of these guys. No Vision All Drive gave me deep insight into Brown and how to be effective working with him, as well as what to expect in the context of his leadership and management style. And it made me even more optimistic about the future of Techstars.
Our goal with the Techstars Series is to get out a series of books applicable to all entrepreneurs at an affordable price. So, instead of doing the default Kindle $9.99 price, or tying the Kindle price to the hardcover price, we are charging $4.95 for the Kindle version. We know there is no marginal cost to each incremental e-book so we want to provide it at a price that entrepreneurs won’t think twice about, which we pegged at the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino .
If you are interested in origin stories or just want to better understand the guys behind Techstars, I encourage you to grab a copy of No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur.
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.
As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.
Item 5 is “Listen Too.”
Pause and ponder for a minute.
Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.
There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.
In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.
The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.
Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.
But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.
FG Press recently released its third book, Accelerate: Founder Insights Into Accelerator Programs.
If you want to understand how an accelerator program works from the inside or are considering applying to an accelerator, this is the book for you. Luke Deering interviewed 150 entrepreneurs who have been through a variety of accelerator programs to get their insights. He originally did this as a Kickstarter campaign which I supported and wrote the foreword for.
When I saw the Kickstarter version, I asked if we could add to it, edit it, and publish it via FG Press. It’s out and I’m really proud of it. It has feedback from entrepreneurs who have gone through accelerators all over the world.
The book is divided into sections that cover topics such how to come up with an idea, advice on applying to an accelerator, tips for marketing and user acquisition early on, approaches to fundraising, and what the accelerator experience is actually like.
There are a number of case studies, longer form essays (but never too long), and lots and lots of short (one to three paragraph) real-life anecdotes. While I acknowledge the case studies are a little Techstars heavy, I think Luke did a nice job of getting a wide variety of examples from many different accelerators.
There’s also an accelerator directory, a good overview from Pat Riley, who runs the Global Accelerator Network, and lots of other goodies.
When we started working on the book, our goal was to make the hardcopy a beautifully designed book that could sit on a coffee table as well as being able to be used as a reference guide. The team at FG Press did a magnificent job.
Today’s installment of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is #4: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard.
Let’s start with “Be Direct.”
At some intellectual level, being direct is easy. You just say what is on your mind. You say it in a declarative way. You lead with it and support it with either experience or examples.
But humans have a very difficult time being direct. Many of us can’t get to the point. We thrive on inductive reasoning. We are passive aggressive in our behavior. This is especially the case when we don’t know the answer to something or when we are uncomfortable with the truth.
Reflect for a moment on how you answer a question when you don’t know the answer. Do you use the magic and wonderful phrase “I don’t know.” Or do you skirt around the question, searching for an answer that is somewhat relevant, while reframing the question more to your liking. Or do you just spew out whatever comes to mind, extrapolating truth from one data point you have lurking in your brain somewhere?
Don’t do this. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. But if you know, be direct.
You might think this contradicts Mentor Manifesto #1: Be Socratic. Remember that “be socratic” doesn’t just mean “ask questions”, it’s all about asking questions to get at the why of something. They key is that when you get at the why, and really get at it, then flip into being direct.
Now, consider the concept “Tell The Truth, However Hard.”
At 48, I’m no longer able, or willing, to lie. As a kid, I’d stretch the truth to exaggerate my own self-importance or the perceived excitement of a story. I did a few things I was ashamed of and lied to cover up and avoid exposing what I’d done. But whenever I got caught in a lie, which was most of the time, I felt badly about myself. My parents handled this really well. Rather than punishing me, they would talk about the deceit and make me face it. They were calm but direct and unyielding. At some point I realized dealing with the ramification of getting caught in a lie was much worse than telling the truth in the first place. I owe it to my parents for instilling this value in me.
By college I don’t think I lied very often. I still exaggerated the truth, but never purposefully lied. The next person to whack me over the head about this was my first business partner, Dave Jilk. At Feld Technologies, I was the primary salesman although Dave sold plenty of business over the years, especially with existing customers. I often made Dave frustrated with two behaviors. The first was when I oversold something and we ended up starting a new client relationship with expectations that were far out of line with what we could deliver. The other was when I was selling Dave on my position, trying to convince him of something by stretching the truth, exaggerating the wonderfulness of the outcome, or, in some cases, just trying to push through with the force of my personality, regardless of the reality of the situation. Dave would regularly challenge and push back on me, which eventually helped me realize that overselling, exaggerating, and overstating the situation ultimately lowered my credibility.
The killing blow for me on lying was when my first wife had a year long affair. The level of deceit in that dynamic, including between the two of us in our inability to be direct with each other about how we felt and what was going on, along with the corresponding emotional fallout for me, was overwhelming. I made an internal commitment to myself to never do that to someone else, regardless of the situation.
I proceeded to get involved in a relationship with a person I’d describe as a “truth teller” or a “fair witness” (for those of you who are fans of Stranger in a Strange Land.) Amy is incapable of not telling the truth, no matter how difficult, and after 23 years of being together, that has become deeply ingrained in my value system.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. I make a lot of them. All the time. And when I do, and I realize it, I own it. Which is another version of telling the truth. It’s easy, especially as a mentor, to gloss over the fact that you made a mistake. But it’s much more powerful to the mentee when you own your mistakes and correct them.
Linking together the ideas of “being direct” and “telling the truth” is very powerful. You end up holding yourself up to a high standard of behavior and communication. And you set an example for those you mentor, just like I learned from my parents, Dave, and Amy.