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.
Jaclyn Hester, one of my Foundry Group partners, recently asked if there was an online definition of #GiveFirst. I spent some time looking around, and, while it’s embedded in numerous podcasts and video interviews, I couldn’t find a clear definition on the web. The closest I found was from January 1, 2013, in a post titled Give Before You Get.
#GiveFirst first appeared as “Give Before You Get” in my book Startup Communities published in 2012. It was turned into the #GiveFirst hashtag by someone at Techstars around 2014. I updated it in the 2nd Edition of Startup Communities (2e) which was published in 2020. I also defined it in The Startup Community Way, also published in 2020.
The definition, from The Startup Community Way, follows:
#GiveFirst means you are willing to put energy into a relationship or a system without defining the transactional parameters. However, it’s not altruism because you expect to get something. But you don’t know when, from whom, in what form, in what consideration, or over what time frame.
While I generally use #GiveFirst to refer to the idea, it often shows up at “Give First.” It’s become the official mantra of Techstars, and there’s even a podcast called Give First.
It’s a deeply held personal philosophy of mine. However, it’s not a static idea, and I’ve been thinking a lot about both the positives and negatives of it lately. But, for now, if you are looking for a definitive definition circa 2020, here it is.
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.
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.
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.
When David and I started doing the #GiveFirst podcast, I was told by a long-time podcaster that it takes about 20 episodes to hit your stride. Since then, several other podcasters have told me that the number is actually closer to 100. Given that hurdle, David and I are 20% of the way there.
In Episode 22, we review the last dozen podcast guests including Josh Hix, Rajat Bhargava, Elizabeth Kraus, Jason Mendelson, Jannet Bannister, Heidi Roizen, Marc Nager & Dave Mayer, John China, Sherri Hammons, Rebecca Lovell, and Harry Stebbings.
I’m enjoying co-hosting the #GiveFirst podcast with David. I hope you are enjoying listening to it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Phil Weiser (@pweiser) December 5, 2018
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.
It’s been a while since I wrote a post deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. The last one I wrote was number 12 of 18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know. Since I’m now working on the first draft of my next book #GiveFirst (or maybe it’ll be called Give First, or GiveFirst – I haven’t decided yet) it’s time to get my shit together and write the last six posts.
Throughout Techstars, we tell the founders that “it’s your company.” The implication of this is that they make the decisions about what to do. Everything they hear from mentors is just data.
A lot of mentors are successful CEOs. As CEOs, they are used to being in control. However, in the context of being a mentor, they don’t control anything. The best they can do is be a guide.
Interestingly, the best investors understand this. One of the lines my partners at Foundry Group use regular is that we only want to make one decision about a company – whether or not we support the CEO. If we support the CEO, we work for her. If we don’t support the CEO, we need to do something about this, which doesn’t necessarily mean fire the CEO.
In the context of being a mentor, you still get to make one decision, but it’s a different one. You get to decide whether or not you want to keep being a mentor. Assuming you do, your job is to support the founders, no matter what.
Ponder the following situation. The company has three founders. While one of them is CEO, it’s not clear that the right founder is the CEO. In addition, two of the founders (the CEO/founder and one other founder) are struggling with the third founder.
It would be easy to size up the situation and tell the founders what to do. But that’s not your job as a mentor. Instead, your job is to guide them to an understanding of the situation. The best mentors will invest time in each founder, keeping an open mind about what the fundamental problems are. You’ll surface the issues, guiding the founders to understand that there are real issues, what they are, help them talk about them, and help them work through them to a resolution or a better situation.
You won’t try to solve the problems. That’s not your job as a mentor. But you will be a guide. At some point, it will be appropriate, as a guide, to say what you would do if you found yourself in a similar situation. But, as a great guide, you won’t force this outcome, nor will you be judgmental if the founders go down a different path.
Remember – you get to make one decision – whether or not you want to keep being a mentor.