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Oct 19 2018

How Asking Someone How to #GiveFirst to Them Undermines #GiveFirst

I got an email this morning from a close friend who asked how I reconcile a particular issue around the concept of #GiveFirst. Following is the setup from the email I got.

“I was thinking of you yesterday. I recently met with someone in town who was looking to connect. I took the meeting because, well, I always take such meetings. I’m just wired that way and you never know what good things can come from such random meetings.

So I love doing them. But yesterday the person I met with showed up with an agenda and, at the top of his list was “GiveFirst to <my organization> and <me>.” He had an agenda…he had an ask of me…but he wanted to “give first” by asking me how he could help me.

I think he misunderstands the mindset. And I think he’s not the only one. By opening up with that, he put me in a position of having to do something–respond to his inquiry–I didn’t really have any need to do.

Moreover, he inadvertently put me in debt to him from the beginning. “Before we begin, let me ask you, ‘How can I help you?’ ” While I don’t really have a lot of asks it still felt yucky, insincere, and manipulative.”

This is a chronic problem with understanding how to implement #GiveFirst. While well-intentioned, it shifts the burden of responsibility from the #GiveFirster to the Receiver. Ponder that for a second.

Here’s an example from my personal life. Amy and I do a lot of things for each other, all the time. But, imagine a situation where she’s overwhelmed, or tired, or in distress from something. If I show up at that moment and say, “How can I help,” I’m adding another thing for her to do to the mix. She is now responsible for figuring out what I can do to help her. If she knew this, she probably would have already asked me. Instead of helping, I’m merely adding another log to whatever fire is already burning.

Instead of asking someone how you can #GiveFirst to them or their company, you should take the opposite approach. Do your research before you meet. Understand what their (or their organizations goals) are. In a lot of cases, you can often figure out a short-term need that they have. Then, when you meet, have a prepared mind for the conversation and listen to where it goes. In real-time, ofter to do something that fits with what you are hearing, or what you expect the goals or short-term needs are.

This doesn’t have to be an explicit part of the conversation (e.g. “I’m going to #GiveFirst to you by doing the following.”) Instead; it needs to be completely non-transaction – you are not doing something to earn anything, including brownie points. You are, instead, operating in a #GiveFirst framework, where you are willing to put energy into something without expecting anything in return. Ideally, you’ll just go #GiveFirst and do some stuff that is helpful to the other party. Not once, but as part of establishing and developing a deeper relationship that comes from a non-transaction perspective.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of mechanizing the #GiveFirst philosophy. It’s explicitly called #GiveFirst and not #TellMeWhatICanDoToHelpYou to stimulate you – the giver – to do the work to figure out what is helpful.

Oct 5 2018

Community, Creativity, and #GiveFirst Event at CU Boulder on 10/18/18

I’m participating in an event at CU Boulder (sponsored by Silicon Flatirons) on 10/18/18 called Community, Creativity, and #GiveFirst.

#GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in The Era of Entrepreneurship is the name of an upcoming book of mine. It’s also the mantra of Techstars.

In addition to a few of the usual cast of characters (me, Brad Bernthal, Jason Mendelson, Nicole Glaros) and some CU folks, a number of interesting people are joining us including Sam Zell, Stephanie Copeland, AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Brian Broughman, Sonali Shah, and Krista Marks.

The first panel is titled #GiveFirst and is a moderated chat between me and Sam Zell. I promise it won’t be dull.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, already view #GiveFirst (which I first talked about in my book Startup Communities in the section “Give Before You Get”) as part of your life, or just want to engage in a stimulating SIlicon Flatirons sponsored afternoon, come join us.

Jul 23 2016

A Typical Example of #GiveFirst

I’ve started working on my next book, currently titled #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in the Era of Entrepreneurship. As a result, my brain is especially tuned to good examples that show a particular aspect of what we refer to as #GiveFirst at Techstars.

I was working at my desk the other day when Krista Marks, the CEO of Woot Math came in and said hi. We are investors and Jason is on her board. Krista and I have been close friends for over a decade and I always have time for her no matter what is going on.

She wanted to tell me a story about #GiveFirst so I stopped what I was doing, sat back in my chair, and listened. After she told me the story, I smiled and asked her if she was game for me to put it up on my blog as an example. She said yes and after she left I put a draft title in WordPress to remind me to recreate / write the story when I had some writing time.

Later that day, Krista sent me the full story, which follows, in an email. While the example is a simple one, it captures the essence of #GiveFirst nicely. Krista’s words follow.


A couple of weeks ago, I had just arrived in  San Antonio to setup and exhibit Woot Math at a conference.

But I also desperately needed to find a conference room to use in the morning for a video presentation and live demo of Woot Math for the board of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund. The convention center didn’t have a room or WiFi I could rent in the center, but they pointed me to the Marriott across the street. The Marriott did have a conference room available for rent. Awesome! Here’s where the story should end, right? But then came the asking price: $400 for the room, $200 for WiFi, and $250 for a phone! I rejected the offer out of principle.

At this point it was after 4:00pm the day before I was scheduled to present at NSVF, and I was starting to worry.

My colleage Tom suggested, “maybe there’s a startup space that rents rooms.” We searched and found Geekdom:

No phone was listed but there was an address; with time running out, we decide to hop in the car and drive there.

When we arrive, it’s close to 5:00pm. I hurried up to the 7th floor of a new, modern office building. The door was locked, but there was a large window, and I caught someone’s eye. I explained that I’m the CEO of Woot Math, a startup in Boulder, and I need to a room to rent for an hour for an important meeting tomorrow.

I’m immediately welcomed in, and taken to Luke Owen, the COO of Geekdom. Luke asked if I’m involved in anyway with Techstars, and I’m pleased to share that I’m a mentor for the Boulder Techstars program. It turns out that Luke is one of the program managers for Techstars Startup Next in San Antonio, which runs it out of Geekdom.

After chatting and sharing lots of common, small world connections, Luke took me a cool conference room with high-ceilings and a large window. I’m told that it is mine for the day; I’m leant his VoIP conference phone; and I’m encouraged to help myself to coffee and the kitchen.

At this point, I’m pretty overwhelmed by Luke’s warmth and generosity. I say something like, “Wow. I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” It turns out he’s working with TeachTag, an ed-tech startup helping teachers be more organized. Luke asks if he can connect  me with the founders Aaron Schuenemann. Here’s the lovely introduction that Luke sent –

It makes me so happy and proud to be part of the Techstars community and it such a powerful reminder of how entrepreneurs make the world better. Every day.

Oct 24 2018

Silicon Flatirons GiveFirst Conference: Feld and Zell

I had a lot of fun at the Silicon Flatirons #GiveFirst conference last week and the smaller academic colloquium session the next day. It was a challenging topic, as we are simply exploring the idea of GiveFirst, how it works, and putting some scaffolding on the overall concept, both practically and intellectually.

Brad Bernthal, who spearheaded the two-day effort, led off with a short overview. Scott Peppet then interviewed me and Sam Zell as a kickoff to the event.

https://youtu.be/4qKGMkWNv7M

My fireside chat with Sam Zell starts at 14:00. While we come at things with different styles and experiences, when I watched it again to reflect on it, I found some really interesting overlaps and new ideas that hadn’t occurred to me.

If GiveFirst is a construct that is interesting to you, I encourage you to spend some time soaking in this video. When my book about it comes out in 2019, I think I’ll be able to point back to this as the first real public discussion of the idea.

Oct 25 2015

#GiveFirst

This is my last blog post of 2015. I’m taking a break from a bunch of things for a while.

#GiveFirst is the title of my next book, which will come out sometime in 2016. I’ve started working on it and realize that I have a finite amount of daily writing energy. Since I no longer wake up every morning at 5am (I don’t use an alarm clock anymore), I have a less predictable morning routine. As a result, my writing times are more random and chaotic, which I like, but means that it’s harder to have big chunks of time on a consistent basis.

For now, #GiveFirst wins over blogging.

But that’s not the only thing driving my blogging hiatus. After over a decade of almost daily public writing, I feel like I need a break. Some is boredom, some is a burdensome feeling around an obligation to an almost daily habit, and some is the lack of freshness I feel in my writing.

I’ve always enjoyed multiple forms of writing – micro (tweets), short (blog posts), medium (magazine articles), and long form (books). I also write a lot of other stuff all day long (mostly emails) and the majority of my communication is written, which I prefer much more than verbal. But I feel like I’ve hit a wall of some kind. And, whenever I hit a wall, my first instinct is to shake some things up.

As I approach turning 50, which happens on December 1st, I’m finding less enjoyment from short bursts of communication and more from just spending time with friends, with Amy, or by myself.  So, through the end of the year, I’m going on a diet. No more blogging. No more twitter. No more commenting on blogs. No more social media of any sort. In addition to stopping generating content (and plenty of online exhaust fumes), I’m going to stop consuming it also.

I have no idea what will happen on January 1st, 2016 – that’s part of the fun of it for me. A ten week reset on this front will be interesting to me. For now, 100% of my public writing will be dedicated to working on #GiveFirst and I’ll explore a new rhythm by subtracting out a lot of other stuff.

See you in 2016.

Oct 12 2016

GiveFirst: I Feel Like I Don’t Know How To Help You

Periodically, at the end of a conversation, someone will ask me, “Is there something I can do for you?” I used to answer with “Do something that is helpful to something or someone in my world.” I usually get a pause and occasionally get a response similar to “I’m not really sure what to do to help you.” Over time, I modified my response to “Do whatever you think is useful to grow your startup community.”

I thought this was a good answer until someone paused, looked at me directly, and said “I’ve been listening to you talk about GiveFirst. I think I get it, but I feel like I don’t know how to help you.”

I realized that for many people, the vague answer I was giving wasn’t helpful. I was trying to create a lot of space for them to do whatever they wanted to be helpful. But the person, like many of us, was looking for something tangible to grab on to, in order to start with something specific that could cause them to feel like there was no question about them helping.

I now try to respond with something specific the person can do. I try to incorporate it into the person’s work. I’ll ask some questions to try to identify something that I know will be helpful to me, but also helpful to them. This is particularly easy for me, since doing something that helps with my global goals around entrepreneurship, rather than a specific, narrow task, helps me.

The magic trick is that if it’s helpful to them, they’ll realize that GiveFirst isn’t altruism. By helping me, they are helping themselves, and the flywheel of GiveFirst begins to turn.

Dec 7 2018

Colorado Magic on a Friday

I’ve been in San Diego with Amy for a while but we are returning to Boulder in a week. San Diego has been great, but I miss my dogs, my friends, and the Colorado vibe.

When people ask me about the Colorado vibe, I often talk about GiveFirst. Soon there will be a book (by me) on this, but for now there’s an increasing amount of content on the web building up to explain it. This article in the Colorado Sun – How Techstars’ “GiveFirst” mantra became a road map for the startup community in Colorado and beyond – was excellent and had numerous short examples of how GiveFirst works and influences a startup community.

Next up is a fun article by my co-author of Startup Communities Way (my new Startup Communities book – coming up mid-year 2019) Ian Hathaway. A few days ago he cranked out a post titled Colorado is for Founders. I love that phrase and he led off the post with this great tweet from Phil Weiser.

He goes on to explain Jared and Phil’s huge accomplishments and impacts around startups and the startup community. The punch line in the post is:

“By many measures, Colorado is the most entrepreneurial state in the country, a fact that I discovered in 2013 when studying high-technology business formation around the United States. I was struck by just how many places across the state had a high proportion of startup activity occurring—a finding that has been extended to looking across other types of high-growth entrepreneurship as well. Something special is happening there, and it has been for many years.”

I’ll end with the Holiday Gift Guide from Techstars. If you want to give someone you know the gift of something from a Techstars company this holiday season, here are the choices all in one place.

Happy Friday Colorado. See you in a week.

Jan 22 2018

Techstars Mentor Manifesto In Detail

I’ve been working on my next book, #GiveFirst, again. There’s a lot in it about the Techstars Mentor Manifesto and how to be an effective mentor.

Yesterday, I got a note from Jay Batson, longtime Techstars Boston mentor and now the Mentor-in-Residence for the program, asking if I had ever compiled the lists I posts I wrote about the Techstars Mentor Manifesto.

I hadn’t. He had conveniently done it in a Google doc so it was easy for me to list out the posts with links. They follow.

1/18: Be Socratic

2/18: Expect nothing in return

3/18: Be Authentic – Practice What You Preach

4/18: Be Direct. Tell the Truth, However Hard.

5/18: Listen, too

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

7/18: Be Responsive

8/18: Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts.

9/18: Clearly Separate Opinion From Fact

10/18: Hold Information In Confidence

11/18: Clearly Commit to Mentor, or Do Not. Either Is Fine

12/18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say “I Don’t Know” when you don’t know.

13/18: Guide, Don’t Control

14/18: Accept and Communicate With Other Mentors That Get Involved

15/18: Be Optimistic

16/18: Provide Specific Actionable Advice

17/18: Be Challenging/Robust but Never Destructive

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

Jay also reminded me that I hadn’t written posts on #17 and #18. They are now on my list to do. Thanks, Jay!

2/6/18: Jay wrote 17/18: Be Challenging/Robust but Never Destructive which is now posted.

2/7/18: Jay wrote 18/18: Have Empathy. Remember That Startups Are Hard which is now posted.

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.

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.