Feb 7 2019

Mentors 18/18: Have Empathy. Remember That Startups Are Hard

This is the final post (18) of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. As with item 17, Jay Batson, a long-time Techstars Boston mentor, nudged me several times to finish this up and wrote a draft from his perspective. Following is item #18 of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, in Jay’s words.

During one of the Techstars Boston cohorts where I’ve been Mentor-in-Residence, I worked with a 20-something CEO founder (code named Mary) who, shortly after raising a seed round of several million dollars, hired a high-powered exec, granting a significant equity option. This new hire was a commercial hustler (code named Scott), moving quickly and broadly to try to secure customers and partners, including some of the tech industry’s largest companies.

Mary had never managed somebody a decade senior to her and was struggling to manage Scott. Further, Scott tended to work autonomously, sometimes doing things outside his remit that was not well-communicated to Mary. As a result, Mary was worried about how this looked to her board. A massive sense of imposter syndrome started creeping in, especially since Mary felt investors had bet on her, yet Scott was having a notable impact, for better and worse, on the strategy and success of the business.

Mary was concerned that the investors thought she wasn’t being effective. A fear was brewing in the pit of her stomach and she worried that everything was going to come apart.

Pause for a moment. Recall the last time you had a consuming passion. Remember how it felt. Think about that incredibly exciting idea that grabbed you and took over your mind, time, priorities, and emotions. Remember how excited you were as you imagined all the threads of what could be, and how your heart beat faster and your adrenaline surged.

And then … you had an existential crisis. A moment when you feared that this awesome future might come crashing down because of a particular situation or the actions of one person. Your heart beat faster again, but this time out of worry, anxiety, and fear.

I want you to replay your joy and fears again for a moment. Having empathy requires you to feel what the other person is going through. To put yourselves in their shoes and feel their fear. And to not immediately try to fix it. Remembering your own hopes and fears will help you have empathy. And this is critical as a mentor because startups are extremely hard.

In the situation above, I could relate to Mary feeling imposter syndrome. My first venture-backed company was not a big exit, and neither I nor my investors fared well. So I felt some imposter syndrome when founding my second venture-backed company (which, happily, has done well.)

So what Mary needed from me as a mentor was to talk to a neutral third-party who understood how technology companies worked and who had felt the expectations placed on a founding CEO. She needed to talk openly about how she was feeling to someone not on her board or exec team, and to whom she could be fully and safely transparent.

Doing that first allowed us to get around to eventually discussing ways to handle the situation. I reminded Mary that first and foremost, Techstars mentors are here to coach her on how to manage athletes like Scott, so she should relax and look for help. She had time to handle the situation if Scott was indeed a problem, as his option grants had a one-year cliff and he was only a couple of months in. So, instead of feeling anxious and pressured into reacting, I encouraged Mary to focus on helping Scott be successful and assess things again in a quarter.

Several years later, after the company, led by Mary, was acquired and had a very successful outcome, she told me that the most memorable and important thing I did for her at that moment was to simply sit, listen, and relate to the feeling she was having. I hadn’t immediately replied with a solution to her problem. Instead, I started with empathy.

As a mentor, be aware when to suspend, or defer, your advice or judgment. The entrepreneur you are mentoring may not be in a head space to hear your solution. Mentoring is often an emotional rather than a functional or intellectual role. Take a breath and be empathetic, instead than jumping in to solve the problem. And never forget that startups are hard.

Jay Batson has been the founder of four companies, including two venture-backed startups, with some big success and disappointing failure. His biggest success is as founding CEO of Acquia, now an 800+ person company with offices around the globe. In 2012, Jay invented the “Mentor-in-Residence” role at Techstars. MIR’s spend near-full-time at Techstars during each cohort to help as extensively as possible with companies and help other Mentors be good at it. Jay has embraced this responsibility for every Boston cohort since then. He’s an LP in several Techstars funds and a direct investor in a selection of Techstars companies.

Comments
Feb 6 2019

Mentors 17/18: Be Challenging/Robust, but Never Destructive

I wrote 16 posts detailing each item of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. However, there were 18 items and, for some reason, I never got around to writing the final two.

Jay Batson, a long-time Techstars Boston mentor, nudged me several times to finish this up. I kept saying “I’ll get to it” but never did. So, he did it for me, with the added motivation of getting it up prior to the kickoff to this year’s Boston program. Following is item #17 of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, in Jay’s words.

This item on the list might sound very similar to #4, “Be Direct. Tell the Truth, However Hard.” But, it’s different. This item (#17) has to do with you, not the companies.

You have been asked to be a mentor at Techstars because you’ve been successful as an entrepreneur and/or a leader. The managing director for your cohort trusts that you’ll help the founders. And those founders are betting – with stock in their company – that you’ll be good for them.

Because of your expertise, you are likely to quickly spot areas in their businesses that need work urgently.

Because you’ve read all the posts here about the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, you dutifully start by being socratic and digging into the fundamental thing that is broken. You are direct, telling the hard truth that you are deeply concerned about some area.

But at some point, you sense the entrepreneur isn’t simply following your lead. They aren’t changing some element of their business to align with your direction. So, you are more direct. You push harder and more forcefully because you think it’s important. But the entrepreneur continues to “not get it”.

And, just like that, you’re irritated. You shut down, you quickly end the meeting, or you push even harder. After the meeting, you vent to the Techstars managing director that this company is in real trouble because the founders aren’t paying attention to this element you find important.

We’ve now reached the point of this post: Never Be Destructive.

The moment you go beyond trying to get your point across to the entrepreneur and do something outside that moment that is less-than-supportive, you’ve stopped being a mentor. You are now simply a judge. Or, worse, a detriment to the company.

You have let your desire to succeed as a mentor become paramount. Your actions can easily shift from being helpful as a mentor to being hurtful to the entrepreneur.

If you let this state persist, your frustration will leak outside the safe space of Techstars. It might be something you say to an investor; which means you’ve now affected the company’s ability to raise capital. If you vent to another founder, you either hurt your own reputation or the mentee’s reputation. At worst, you may end up affecting their relationships with potential partners or future hiring candidates.

Being a Techstars mentor does not mean being 100% dedicated to being a successful mentor. It means being 100% dedicated to helping founders build great companies.

So, be robust if you have to in making sure they hear what you’re trying to make them aware of.

But when you leave the room, make sure you flip the switch and remain 100% dedicated to making them successful, whether or not you think they heard what you had to say.

Jay Batson has been the founder of four companies, including two venture-backed startups, with some big success and disappointing failure. His biggest success is as founding CEO of Acquia, now an 800+ person company with offices around the globe. In 2012, Jay invented the “Mentor-in-Residence” role at Techstars. MIR’s spend near-full-time at Techstars during each cohort to help as extensively as possible with companies and help other Mentors be good at it. Jay has embraced this responsibility for every Boston cohort since then. He’s an LP in several Techstars funds and a direct investor in a selection of Techstars companies.

Comments
Jan 23 2019

Techstars Sustainability Accelerator AMA

On 2/12/19, Brian McPeek (President, The Nature Conservancy) and I are doing an AMA about the Techstars Sustainability accelerator.

It’ll be at 1 pm MT and last for an hour. This will be the second year that Techstars is running an accelerator in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. I had high expectations when we announced the partnership in November 2017. The year one program far exceeded my expectations!

Brian and his team at TNC are a substantial force for good in our ever more complex world. Join us to hear more about how TNC and Techstars are working together to help companies get started to address some of the most challenging issues facing our planet.

And, if you are one of those companies, applications for the accelerator are now open. Please apply!

Comments
Jan 21 2019

Crazy Vivid Travel Anxiety Dream

The brain in sleep state is a fascinating thing.

I have been awake for 30 minutes and the dream is lingering. While it’s not as vivid as when I woke up, the details are still there. Maybe it is a result of the Super Blood Wolf Moon. Or maybe its because I’m traveling today.

I’m in an airport casually talking to someone who has stopped me to ask me a question. I realize it is 6:35am and my flight leaves at 6:30am. I rush to the gate to find that my plane has departed to New York but there is another one leaving at 7:05am. I stand in a short line but people keep getting in front of me. I finally decide to push my way to the front and talk to the gate agent. She says it’s too late to get on the 7:05am but I can get on the next flight to New York, which is at 10:30am.

That won’t work because my meeting starts at 10:30am. I’m meeting Person L and Person F there at Company B to pitch Company B on something. I’m wearing my normal work uniform (jeans and a Robert Graham shirt) but I’m nervous that I should be wearing a suit given Company B’s culture.

I try to figure out a solution with the gate agent. She’s nice, but she doesn’t have a solution for me other than the 10:30am flight. I start to get my bags and try to go to another airline, but both my Filson bag and my laptop bag are missing. My phone was on top of one of the bags so it’s missing also. I start to panic and ask the gate agent to help me find the bags. She points at a bunch of different bags that are just lining the gate area, but none of them are mine. I try to walk out the doors to the plane to find my bags but some burly guy stops me.

I go back to the gate agent to make sure she has my information in case she finds my bags. She says she does but I’ve never given her anything so I try to give her a business card. When I put it on the desk, I see it is for Person E. I try to write my phone number on the card but my writing is illegible. The gate agent isn’t paying attention to me anyway.

I remember that the document that I was working on is stored in Google Docs so it’s automatically backed up. But my suit is in my bag so I can’t wear it to the meeting. And I can’t call Person L to tell him that I can’t make it to the meeting. I decide to punt and go buy another phone.

I wake up feeling very unresolved.

I sometimes wonder what my computer is dreaming about when it’s in sleep state.

Comments
Jan 17 2019

Some Poetry Ends

Amy’s favorite poet, Mary Oliver, just passed away at 83. In her honor, following is Amy’s favorite Mary Oliver poem White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field.

Coming down
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddha with wings,
it was beautiful
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings –
five feet apart – and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow –

And then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes,
to lurk there,
like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows –
so I thought:
maybe death
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us –

as soft as feathers –
that we are instantly weary
of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,
not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river
that is without the least dapple or shadow –
that is nothing but light – scalding, aortal light –
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

By Mary Oliver, From House of Light copyright © 1990, Beacon Press

If you like Mary Oliver, other favorites include Wild Geese and The Summer Day.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves”

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

While some poetry ends, the poems last forever.

Comments
Jan 16 2019

Techstars Studio and the Studio Model

Today, Techstars announced a new initiative called Techstars Studio which will allow Techstars to source new company concepts from Techstars alumni founders, community leaders, venture capitalists, mentors, and corporate partners. The Techstars Studio will then build prototypes, test market adoption, and select the most promising concepts for launch. Techstars Studio will then launch new startups and source talent and capital from the Techstars worldwide network to run the new companies.

The goal of each Techstars Studio is to launch four new companies annually. The first Techstars Studio will be in Boulder, just like the first Techstars accelerator was in 2007. As with the expansion of Techstars Accelerators around the world (Techstars will run 41 accelerator programs in 31 cities and 11 countries in 2019), expect Techstars Studios to follow a similar expansion path.

At Foundry, we have a lot of experience with the Studio model. We are investors in PSL (in Seattle) and High Alpha (in Indianapolis). We are also investors in the venture funds associated with the studios (PSL Ventures and High Alpha Capital) as well as Techstars Ventures.

Over the past five years, we’ve looked at potentially investing in numerous studios. We think the studio model, while very attractive with the right team, resources, and network, is very difficult to execute well. We’ve been deliberate in our choices and the leaders of both PSL and High Alpha have been helpful with Techstars as they’ve gone through their thought process on how to build out a studio.

We are especially excited about the founding team of Techstars Studios. Along with the leadership of David Cohen (the co-CEO of Techstars) will be Isaac Saldana, founder of SendGrid and Mike Rowan, former VP of SendGrid Labs. We’ve worked closely with Isaac and Mike over the years and are psyched to have another chance to create something with them from the ground floor.

A number of the most successful Techstars accelerator alumni are participating as founders in residence and advisors to Techstars Studio. In addition, more than 25 corporate partners of Techstars are involved in the initiative at launch.

If you are interested in the Techstars Studio, drop me an email and I’ll route you to the right folks.

Comments
Jan 15 2019

Implicit Gender Bias in Startup Funding

While there have been many words written about gender bias in the context of entrepreneurship and funding, I thought the following TED Talk from Dana Kanze presented one of the best frames of references, supported by a real research study, that I’ve seen to date. In addition, she has some clear, actionable suggestions at the end of the talk to help eliminate the bias.

Her research emerges from her own exploration of a social psychological theory originated by Professor Tory Higgins called “regulatory focus.” This theory explores the different motivational orientations of promotion and prevention.

While listening to Dana’s explanation and examples in the video, I had a deep insight – around how to ask questions of an entrepreneur – that hadn’t occurred to me before. Here are her direct definitions of promotion focus and prevention focus.

“A promotion focus is concerned with gains and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments and advancement needs, while a prevention focus is concerned with losses and emphasizes safety, responsibility and security needs. Since the best-case scenario for a prevention focus is to simply maintain the status quo, this has us treading water just to stay afloat, while a promotion focus instead has us swimming in the right direction. It’s just a matter of how far we can advance.”

Dana’s punchline is that investors approach female entrepreneurs with a prevention focus and male entrepreneurs with a promotion focus. Interestingly, she finds this is consistent regardless of the gender of the investor!

The talk has a clear recommendation for female entrepreneurs in it. Basically, if you get a prevention question, reframe the answer in a promotion context.

“So what this means is that if you’re asked a question about defending your start-up’s market share, you’d be better served to frame your response around the size and growth potential of the overall pie as opposed to how you merely plan to protect your sliver of that pie.”

Dana also has a suggestion for how investors (both female and male) can help eliminate this implicit bias.

“So to my investors out there, I would offer that you have an opportunity here to approach Q&A sessions more even-handedly, not just so that you could do the right thing, but so that you can improve the quality of your decision making. By flashing the same light on every start-up’s potential for gains and losses, you enable all deserving start-ups to shine and you maximize returns in the process.”

Her talk is only 15 minutes long and well worth it. Or, if you are a fast reader, take a look at the transcript.

Comments
Jan 14 2019

Book: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

I read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister recently. It was recommended to me by Tami Forman, the CEO of Path Forward and I was immediately cheered on by Amy when I started reading it.

It was extraordinary. Every man I know should read it. I’m now officially a Rebecca Traister fan. I learned a lot, was forced to think about a bunch of uncomfortable stuff, and formed some new ideas about how to address some gender-related issues in our society.

And then I read the Bloomberg article Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost and got mad at some men.

The article starts strong.

“No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.”

It then goes on and references this as “The Pence Effect.”

Call it the Pence Effect, after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he avoids dining alone with any woman other than his wife. In finance, the overarching impact can be, in essence, gender segregation.

I thought the idea of the Pence effect, as stupid as it is, had come and gone. But I apparently am wrong.

“For obvious reasons, few will talk openly about the issue. Privately, though, many of the men interviewed acknowledged they’re channeling Pence, saying how uneasy they are about being alone with female colleagues, particularly youthful or attractive ones, fearful of the rumor mill or of, as one put it, the potential liability.”

Then I came upon a quote that was advice for men which seemed fitting and was a solution that I expect Rebecca Traister could be supportive of.

 “Just try not to be an asshole.”

If you are living in fear around the #MeToo issue, go read Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Confront your fear. Examine any guilt you have. Get real with yourself about the issue. Change your behavior. And just try not to be an asshole.

Comments
Jan 11 2019

Money Doesn’t Solve Problems. People Solve Problems.

One of our favorite VC firms to work with is True Ventures. I’ve made many investments over the years with both Jon Callaghan and Tony Conrad, and I love being a co-investor with them.

Recently, Tony told me a great Jon Callaghan quote.

“Money Doesn’t Solve Problems. People Solve Problems.”

I’ve learned this lesson 7,345,123 times.

Every successful company I’ve been involved in had a least one near-death experience. Most of the successful companies I’ve been involved with have had at least one stall period, where growth slowed dramatically for some time. Lots of successful companies I’ve been involved in were tight on cash for extended periods. Some successful companies I’ve been involved in looked like they were doing well if you looked at their top line revenue and growth numbers, but were a disaster below the surface.

Note that I repeated “successful companies I’ve been involved in” for each sentence. Each of these companies that I’m referring to ultimately were successful. I’m separating them from companies I was involved in that failed.

In all of these cases, Jon’s statement is correct. The solution was not to throw money at the company and hope things at the company got better. Instead, the successful companies had a functional leadership team and board that was able to figure out the problems and solve them. While the issues often included some members of the leadership team (including occasionally the CEO), in each case, it required focusing on what wasn’t working, where the problems were, and taking aggressive and decisive action to address them.

Assuming the people addressing the issues were the right people, and the extended team (management and board) focused on the correct problems, and then the team gave each other enough time to see whether or not what they were doing addressed the issues, more often than not things ended up in a happy place. While sometimes the issues were intractable, or the dynamics between the people were ineffective, most of the time the focus on people solving the problems resulted in spending less money.

I have a corollary to Jon’s statement which is: “When things break or stall, slow down your spending.” The momentum of growth often results in expense growth regardless of what is happening in the rest of the business. A lot of this expense growth is headcount but also includes a substantial (and often surprisingly large) mix of variable and discretionary spending. While cutting headcount can be part of the approach, taking a hard look at all expenses, eliminating what is unnecessary or ineffective, and communicating clearly with everyone in the company, can often have an immediate and dramatic impact.

It’s scary to tell everyone in the company exactly what is going on when you are in distress. We recently had a long thread on our CEO list titled Surfacing runway: yes or no? It was brilliant and full of great examples, but one, from a company that had stalled but then went on to be extremely successful, stood out to me. The CEO of that company said that during their stall period:

We shared with all employees both income statement and balance sheet (including cash position) to make clear that we needed to better control our expenses so that we could control our own destiny re runway (it was also in context of decelerating growth rate – our rule of 40 was in the teens). We slowed hiring considerably and created programs called “Save to Reinvest” to drive home a sense of fiscal discipline. We showed the company at each monthly All Hands how the financials were changing from our collective activities.

The solution here was people. Not money. Like it usually is.

Comments
Jan 10 2019

Manage the Clock

I used to be chronically late to everything, both personal and professional. In my twenties, before cell phones, I was one of those people that others referred to as having “Brad time” which did not correlate with the actual time in the world. My calendar and schedule was a rough sketch, not even a guide.

My lack of attention to time finally imploded on me around age 35 when Amy said she’d had enough on multiple dimensions of our life. The foundational issue for us was that my actions didn’t match my words, and by being late all the time, I wasn’t honoring my priorities (which I would regularly say was Amy over everything else …) If you ever get us together at a meal and want to hear some epic “Brad was late” stories, ask her about the Postrio dinner of 2000.

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot better at being on-time. I’m not a “five minutes early to everything” person, but I’m rarely more than a few minutes late to anything. I’m very scheduled throughout the week, so it’s often hard to transition between the thing that ends at 2:30 and then be on time to the thing that starts at 2:30 and get it exactly right each time. And, throughout the day, when I end up going until 2:35 for whatever reason, the 2:30 call then goes a little long, and everything backs up a little so that I’m 15 minutes late for the last meeting of the day. And now I know to always say “I’m sorry for being late” whenever I’m late.

Over the years I’ve tried many different approaches to managing the clock. For a while, I tried using Google’s “speedy meeting” option which defaults to 25 minute meetings (instead of 30) and 50 minute meetings (instead of an hour), but no one ever paid any attention to it and it just seemed to create weird openings in my calendar for anyone who had access to it.

Today, I use a different approach. I try manage the clock better during a meeting when I’m in charge, and prompt others when I’m not. That works a little, but it’s annoying.

I find this particularly challenging on calls that are an hour long with multiple people. Or, in three hour-ish board meetings with a lot of people. I don’t control the agenda in those meetings, so clock management is up to someone else. And, most people are painfully bad at it.

There are a few tips for anyone who wants to do this well.

The first is to publish an agenda with times allocated to each section. Then, have an enforcer (not the person running the meeting) who gives a five minute warning on each section. Then, end each section on time. Basically, break up the meeting into smaller chunks (15 – 30 minutes) and adhere to the schedule.

Next, front end load the meetings. Do the stuff you need everyone on the call or at the meeting for up front. Some things need you to build into them, but don’t leave them “for the end” – build deliberately to each deeper discussion or decision you want to have. Leaving the critical discussions and decisions for the end of the meeting is a guaranteed way not to get to them.

Send out materials well in advance (at least 48 hours) and assume everyone can read. If they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours, and they’ll get the hint pretty quickly. Instead of going page by page through your materials, or using the materials as a crutch to “review” things, summarize they key points and focus on discussion and debate, rather than review.

Finally, build in buffer. Almost everyone needs to go to the bathroom during a three hour meeting. At the minimum, it’s good to stand up and stretch your body. All video conferencing systems, no matter how good, continue to have weird friction at the beginning of the meeting, so have a front-end start buffer, rather than anxiety around the inevitable five minute delay. And, when the meeting goes off the rails and you get ten minutes behind because someone (e.g. me) can’t shut up about something and your time enforcer was daydreaming about Dali paintings, use the buffer to catch back up.

This is a problem that has been persistent in my life for over 30 years. If you have magic tricks that have worked for you, I’m all ears.

Comments