Ben Casnocha is hard at work at his book titled “My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley”; which Jossey-Bass (part of John Wiley & Sons) is publishing this spring. I read a draft over Thanksgiving and I predict this book will end up becoming a New York Times bestseller – it is extraordinary (just like Ben.) Ben has asked a number of his friends to write short essays (called “Braintrusts”) to include in the book. I was honored that he asked me to write one on Mentors. Following is my “Reflections on Mentors” which hopefully will make it into the book when it’s published this spring.
My first mentor was my Dad. I remember going for a long walk with him near our house in Dallas when I was 13 where he actively stepped out of “dad” mode and went into “business mentor mode” for the first time. Part of the brilliance of his mentoring is that he realized I needed non-parental mentors, so he introduced me to a patient of his, Gene Scott, who had been an executive at several computer companies in the 1960s and 1970s. As a teenager, I had a monthly dinner with “Mr. Scott” and I got my first taste of how rewarding a mentoring relationship can be.
In college, I started two companies which both failed, but my mentors (and my Dad) stayed close to me and helped me learn, struggle through the businesses, and accept failure.
In my first successful company, Feld Technologies, one of our early clients – Stewart Forbes – became another influential mentor. While he taught me a lot directly, Stewart taught me how to learn by actively working with my mentors, versus just observing them. I learned that an active mentoring relationship – regular communications, a two-way exchange of ideas, and even some disagreements – is much more effective than a “lecture style” relationship.
When I was in my early 20s, my uncle Charlie Feld entered the scene. Charlie was the CIO at Frito-Lay and one of the most respected CIO’s in industry. Whenever Charlie was in Boston, he invited me along, unashamed to have his nephew in tow. He taught me to always be willing to include younger people in your activities so they can learn. And with his help, I learned a lot.
Not all my mentors were business people. Eric von Hippel, my graduate advisor at MIT, pushed me to figure out deeper lessons about life. When I dropped out of a Ph.D. program, got divorced, and sold my first company – all in the same year – Eric was there for me day and night to help me work through my first major personal crisis and determine how I wanted to respond to it. Eric taught me how to discover what I really wanted to do with my life, and then spend all my time doing it. Without a mentor, it would have taken me a much longer time to answer this critical question. Eric may have been in academia, but he could still play “life coach” to me, a good reminder that sometimes the best mentors guide you in areas outside their official domain of expertise.
When I sold my first company at age 27, I acquired two great mentors – Len Fassler and Jerry Poch. In addition to solid business advice, Len taught me how to be gracious in every situation. He emphasized the value of sticking with something through to the very end, whether good or bad. Jerry taught me how to always be direct and clear, no matter what the news. Even if I hadn’t gotten a dime for my first company, Len and Jerry’s lessons about graciousness, persistence, and candor would have more than paid for themselves many times over.
When I look back on these and all the other mentors I’ve had (and continue to have today) and the people whom I now mentor, one thing stands out: the rare, but brilliant moment when the relationship shifts, the distinction between mentor and mentee dissolves, and you become “co-mentors”. Even if you aren’t “peers,” the learning becomes bi-directional. Everyone in a mentoring relationship should strive for this equilibrium, because it is here where the greatest learning occurs.
It’s easy to take. It’s harder to give. The value, and joy, you derive from a mentoring relationship corresponds with the effort you put into it. When there’s a balance between the two the relationship can be extraordinary. Think about what you are learning from your mentors. Even more importantly, think about what you are teaching them.
As chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’m enjoyed observing the regular evolution of how we describe the organization. My friends Larry and Pat Nelson just interviewed Lucy Sanders – the CEO of NCWIT – and I think Lucy did a particularly crisp job of describing what NCWIT is about and why it’s important.
Om Malik has a great post up titled Alexa can be injurious to your wealth that describes a number of flaws with Alexa as a ranking of a web-based service. I have never taken Alexa data very seriously – while Om points out some flaws there are lots of others that anyone with a basic understanding of web analytics will be able to determine quickly. While it’s potentially useful for either long term trends or very rapid variance effects (e.g. The First 25,000 Users Are Irrelevant problem or – as Josh Kopelman more succinctly put it – 53,651) I’m always very careful about how I interpret the data (and I usually don’t give it much weight.)
Om’s parting comment is “In closing, if you are a startup that brings up your Alexa ranking in a meeting with us and tout that as your shining achievement, it would be time for my smoke break!” I couldn’t agree more (even though I don’t smoke – how about “it’s time for my treadputer break.”) I don’t want to hear about your Alexa ranking – I want to hear about what your users are really doing, how much they are actually using things, and what drives increased adoption.
Matt Blumberg pointed me to a post about the Boulderites recent decision to raise taxes on themselves by passing a carbon tax. The feds can’t seem to get around to doing it, so the Bouder locals just took it on themselves as an effort to fill the federal governments gap on climate policy.
I’ve become obsessed with “Networks” – I’ve learned an enormous amount from coordinating the FeedBurner Venture Capital Network and the Colorado Entrepreneurs and Technology Network. Look for lots of interesting things to come to this in the next few months, including some “Intelligence Amplification” stuff that my friends at FeedBurner aren’t even aware of yet (heheh.)
While the FeedBurner Network concept is a “user-organized” network approach (although in this case the “user” is a single publisher coordinating a network of other topically similar publishers), there are now many other well known blog networks that are being driven by commercial publishers. Nick Denton and Jason Calacanis started this off with Gawker and Weblogsinc respectively, Mike Arrington and Om Malik followed with highly visible “new tech networks” TechCrunch and GigaOm, and many others have joined in the fun.
FeedBurner just released a list of 22 networks that cover 1,500 feeds and over 5 million subscribers that are using FeedBurner’s advertising services in some way. While some of the ad activity is in the feed, an increasing amount of it that FeedBurner is providing is on the actual site, and the link between the feed and the site is rapidly increasing in importance and relevance (and – voila – FeedBurner ties it all together.)
As a special bonus to publishers around the world, FeedBurner just revved their Publishers Tips blog to help any and all publishers get more out of their feed.
I know I sound like Brad-portfolio-company-fan-boy today. That’s because I am!
A few months ago NewsGator released a Windows Mobile feed reader called NewsGator Go! I’ve been using it on my T-Mobile Dash and it’s fantastic. Today, NewsGator Go! for J2ME just went Beta. If you have a Blackberry, Palm Treo or Tungsten, Sony Ericsson (P800, P900, P910), Nokia, Motorola (V400, V551, V600, RAZR), Samsung, LG, or other Java phone, you can now run the NewsGator on it. It automagically syncs with your NewsGator Online account (and any other NewsGator products you are using.) Kevin Cawley – one of the big brains behind much of the NewsGator mobile stuff – has a nice post up about it.
My current configuration is FeedDemon on my PCs, NetNewsWire on my Macs, and NewsGator Go! Mobile on my Dash. The Bones in Motion guys just sent me a KRZR ao I’ll give NewsGator Go! for J2ME a try on that this weekend. It’s all tied together on the back end with NewsGator Online, although we are working on testing NewsGator Enterprise On-Demand (also in beta.)
So – we’ve now got a wide range of mobile platforms covered – Windows, Java, and HTML – with sync to our online platform and enterprise products – with spiffy high-performance readers on each client.
My partner Ryan McIntyre has a nice, detailed follow up post on Intelligence Amplification. Stan James – founder and CTO of Lijit (one of our investments in the Intelligence Amplification theme) – calls it the “Digital Cortex.”
Our friendly neighborhood Supreme Court is having some fun discussing the current legal definition of “patent obviousness.” It sounds like there were some entertaining snippets in the conversation as the Supreme Court considers rewriting it. A change here would have a wide ranging impact which – in my mind – based on my previously stated view on software patents – would be a hugely positive thing. At the minimum, it’s provocative to think about the potential impact. The best line of the day – offered apparently with complete ironic intent – appears to be Chief Justice Roberts asking an attorney: “Who do you get to be an expert to tell us something’s not obvious? The least insightful person you can find?”
I got a bunch of great suggestions on online chess from y’all – thanks! I’ve decided – at least for now – to play on Red Hot Pawn (my handle is bfeld) since I want correspondence style rather than real time. I hope I’ll be able to avoid the mate in one blunder that Vladimir Kramnik made against Deep Fritz yesterday (thanks to Craig Wilcox for pointing it out.)