I recently received the following email.
I am in a bit of a dilemma and would really appreciate any insight you all have on what to do.
Last month, my team worked with a designer to create a new homepage for my startup. Yesterday, I saw that another company ripped off our entire site design. They have also just recently pivoted into doing exactly what we do.
You can compare the two sites here: Us Them a week ago Them now.
It doesn’t feel right that they can so brazenly steal someone else’s work like that. You would think they would have a reputation to uphold.
Anyway, my question for the group: How can we turn this negative into a positive for us?
My response was:
Welcome to the world. It sucks, but it happens all the time.
There are two approaches:
1. Ignore them and just kick their ass.
2. Make a big deal about it as a way to get more attention for you. Do this in a classy way. Don’t be whiny about it.
So you know, I generally choose option 1. I find that option 2 is very hard to execute and usually a distraction. But if you can do option 2 correctly, especially for a consumer service like yours, it can generate a lot of interest.
After a week or so, a draft blog post, and a little more back and forth the sender concluded:
For a quick update on this front, I think I did want the noise, to hopefully drive more awareness and because I was still kinda mad.
But, after putting it out of my mind for a few days and focusing on making progress on our product and marketing strategy, I feel calmer about the whole thing. Best case scenario we embarrass them – which doesn’t seem as fun anymore now that I’m not as actively mad – and get some sympathy and signups. Worst case scenario it backfires on us. Either way it’s a distraction and a lot of noise that isn’t really my style.
Our team is better, our technology more scalable, our wit sharper. They are right in some ways to make their site a cheap knockoff of ours – our site is great. But they’re fighting a losing battle. So I’m gonna go with option A of ignoring it and kicking their ass.
So yeah, your advice ended up being right on. Thanks for suggesting I sleep on it for a few days and again just for being responsive and helpful overall – it really did mean a lot.
I was proud of this person. The high road is always more fun, especially when you toss boulders down on the person on the low road and crush them before they make any progress toward the top of the mountain.
The second element of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back). It’s extraordinarily simple while being profoundly hard.
It’s simple because it’s easy to say “I’m doing this without any expectations.” That felt good, right? You are going to be a good mentor, helping another up and coming entrepreneur, and it’ll be good karma. It’s good marketing – who doesn’t like people to say things about him like “Joe is such a good guy – he helped me without expecting anything back.” Simple, right?
It’s profoundly hard because this just isn’t human nature, especially in a business context. We live in a transactional world, constantly deciding where to invest our time to get the best ROI – there’s even a phrase for that which is “return on invested time.” We worry about things like reputational effects, being cautious of spending too much time with low impact activities or unknown people, while being drawn to the spotlight and well-known people, even if the activities are hollow and lack substance or value. We feel overwhelmed with the base level of work we have and struggle to justify spending time on activities with an unknown impact on what is directly in front of us. We prioritize how we spend our time, gravitating towards things where we can see the payoff.
I have two constructs I use that have broken this cycle for me which are at the core at being an awesome mentor: Give Before You Get and Random Days.
Give Before You Get is a cousin to a concept many of us are familiar with called “pay it forward.” With pay it forward, someone once did something for you to help you with your life or your career and you are now helping someone else out to “pay it forward” as compensation for this previous support. While nice, it’s still a transaction concept, which is where give before you get differs. In give before you get, you enter into a relationship without defining anything transactional – you “give” in whatever form is appropriate, but you have no idea what you are going to “get” back. Now, this isn’t altruism – you will get something back – you just don’t know when, from who, in what currency, or in what magnitude. You enter into the relationship non-transactionally and are willing to continue giving without a defined transactional return.
This is at the core of my Startup Communities thesis. To truly activate a startup community you have to get everyone in the startup community putting energy into the community, essentially giving before they get. If you create this culture, magical things happen very quickly as an enormous amount of kinetic energy goes into the startup community, generating rapid activity, results, and powerful second order effects.
In the construct of give before you get, it’s important to remember this isn’t altruism, which is why I’m repeating that notion. You will get something back, you just don’t have any expectations around what it will be. That’s unnatural for humans, and is the fundamental difference between a mentor and and an advisor. An advisor says “I’ll help you if you give me a $3,000 / month retainer and 1% of your company.” A mentor says simply, “How can I help?”
Random Days is one way to practice being a great mentor and giving before you get. I started doing random days in 2005 after a long history of random 15 minute meetings – something I’ve always done, but at some point realized I couldn’t effectively squeeze them into the normal flow of my day anymore. So I started setting aside about a day a month to do a dozen or so random 15 minute meetings. Some magical things, including Techstars, have come from Random Days. The trick to an amazing random day experience is to meet with anyone (zero filter) and let the 15 minutes be entirely about them and their agenda. I typically start each meeting with “Hi, I’m Brad Feld, the next 15 minutes are about whatever you want to talk about.” That establishes that I have no expectations and I’m fully available and present for the person I’m meeting with.
In a busy world with constant performance pressure and expectations around outcomes, the concept of give before you get and the idea of having a periodic random day may seem ridiculous. If you are thinking “that sounds nice and utopian, but I don’t have time for that” or “yeah Brad, whatever, but you are in a different position in life than I am”, I challenge you to rethink your position. I’ve been doing this since my first company in my early 20s. I’ve built the notion of give before you get into the core of my value system. I’ve allowed myself to continually be open to randomness and many of the incredible things I’ve gotten to be involved in have come from one of these random interactions. Most importantly, I continually am amazed by what comes back to me, over and over again, from people I’ve put energy, time, and resources into without any expectation of a return. The payoff, financial and non-financial, has been profound for me.
So try it. Don’t shift to a 100% give before you get mentality, but allocate 10% of your time to it. Find ways to give before you get. And if you are a mentor for an accelerator, a younger person, a peer, or someone in your organization, make sure you internalize the idea of giving before you get and expecting nothing in return. You’ll be delighted with what you do get back.
We recently funded Blinkfire Analytics using our FG Angels Syndicate. The CEO and founder, Steve Olechowski, was co-founder / COO of FeedBurner, which Google acquired in 2007. I was an investor and on the board of FeedBurner, which is how I got to know Steve.
If you don’t know the FeedBurner story, there were four FeedBurner founders – Dick Costolo (now CEO of Twitter), Eric Lunt (now CTO of BrightTag and until recently a board member at Gnip, which Twitter just acquired), Matt Shobe (now at AngelList), and Steve.
In addition to bootstrapping his new company forever (since he’s a multi-time successful entrepreneur), Steve could easily raise an angel round any time he wanted to. So, we were psyched he was willing to do an FG Angels Syndicate with us.
Steve had some unsolicited comments for me, AngelList, and angels as a result of the process. I asked him if I could post them – he said yes. Following is a thoughtful set of reasons AngelList is so powerful, along with some constructive feedback for us to consider.
1) Some of your backers are really good citizens. When it was oversubscribed they kept their syndicate commitment, but offered a much bigger investment outside the syndicate. When 50% of the money didn’t close, they went back and put it back into the syndicate.
2) You have a bunch of “shadow backers” who seem to follow your investments, and then try to go direct to invest to avoid paying your carry.
3) There are some backers that request an awful lot of due diligence for a $1000 investment. If they are that worried about losing $1000, perhaps AngelList isn’t the right place for them to be investing.
For us, the benefits of the syndicate are:
1) Access to capital we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to raise on angel list, and offline
2) Keeping the number of entries on our cap table relatively small
3) Though #2, we still have the transparency of knowing who the “LPs” are, and can mine them for help if needed
For the investors, the clear benefits are:
1) Access to deal flow they wouldn’t otherwise get
2) Ability to diversify their funds without a huge minimum ticket
3) Piggybacking on an investment thesis without having to do the research
The only negatives so far are the days of uncertainty where do you don’t know how much is going to get filled and if you need to generate more demand or turn people away on a daily basis.
Since today is the first day of the new Techstars Boulder program, I figured that it’s time to get rolling Deconstructing The Techstars Mentor Manifesto.
My goal with this series of posts is not to get the detail right, but to flesh things out and get your feedback. So please comment on anything and challenge everything to help me get it better.
First up (of the 18 items) is “Be Socratic.”
If you think “be socratic” means “ask questions”, you are partially correct. When David Cohen was crafting the mentor manifesto, it was obvious to start with “be socratic” since such a key part of the Techstars mentor process is to ask questions. But it’s not just the act of asking questions, it’s how you ask questions, what you try to accomplish with the questions, and what your responses to the answers are.
The “how” is important. As a mentor, it’s easy to establish a 1-up / 1-down relationship with the entrepreneurs you are talking to. In most cases, you start that way, especially with first time entrepreneurs. However, your goal should be to create a peer relationship, where the mentee learns from the mentor and the mentor learns from the mentee. As a result, tone matters. A lot.
The cliche “there are no stupid questions” applies. Body language matters. If you – as the mentor – don’t understand something, ask a question. You don’t have to show the mentee that you are smarter than her. You don’t have to establish your credibility – you already have it.
While one of your goals with these questions is to learn more about the company and the problem you are exploring, recognize that if your engagement with the mentee is a one-way Q&A session with no clear goal, your mentee will only be getting part of the value out of the experience. Use your questions to guide the discussion, presumably toward testing hypotheses you might be developing in real time. Be explicit about these hypotheses as you are testing them and try to show your thought process through the questioning. This can be subtle, where you just guide things along, or it can be explicit, where you state your hypothesis and then start asking questions.
Your goal should not be to come up with the answer and state it, but rather to help the mentee reach the answer or a set of new hypotheses she can test. This is a collaborative process, especially if you are trying to develop a peer relationship. It won’t happen comfortably in your first interaction, but after a lot of time together you’ll find you are learning from each other during the process and reaching a better set of answers, or at least new hypotheses to test.
In the same way that how you ask the question matters, how you respond to the answers matters just as much. The corollary to “there are no stupid questions” is “there are no stupid answers” and it’s just as important to realize that. For most people, answering questions in real time, especially when you are getting them from lots of different directions (as in multiple mentors over a short period of time) can be intimidating. When a person hasn’t thought deeply about the answer to a question, or hears a new question for the first time, the answer often doesn’t really address the question.
When this happens, just ask “Why?” If you’ve never heard of 5 Whys it’s one of the most brilliant things I ever learned about getting to the root cause of any issue. The example in Wikipedia is wonderful, since it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
What matters here is the root cause. And that’s what you are trying to get to with your questions. So don’t dismiss the first answer – keep digging. And use the third answer to set up a few hypotheses because at this point you are actually getting into the meat of the discussion.
The goal is not to end up with the definitive answer to the questions. Rather, you are trying to use the questions to set up a new set of hypotheses to go test. You are at the beginning of a long arc of inquisition – use being socratic as a continuous process to try to find answers.
I was in the bathroom this morning catching up on all the blogs (via Feedly) that I hadn’t read this week since my head was in a bunch of other things. I came across one from Nic Brisbourne (Forward Partners) titled I’m a stock picker. I wish he had called it “This Unicorn Thing Is Bullshit For Early Stage Investing” but I think he’s a little more restrained than I am.
My original title for this post was “How Can This Be A Billion Dollar Company and other bullshit VCs ask early stage companies.” It was asked by VCs to several companies I’m involved in last week. While I get why a late stage investor would ask the question when the valuation is in the $250 million range, I really don’t understand why a seed investor would ask this question when the valuation is in the $5m range.
Now, I’ve invested in a few unicorns in my investing career, including at least one unicorn that went bankrupt a few years later (I guess that’s a dead unicorn.) But I’ve also invested in a number of companies that have had exits between $100m and $1b that resulted in much larger returns for me, both on an absolute basis as well as a relative basis, than unicorns have for their later stage investors.
I’ve never, ever felt like the “billion dollar” aspiration, which we are now all calling “unicorn”, made any sense as the financial goal of the company. Nor have I felt it made sense as a VC investing strategy, especially for early stage investors. We never use the phrase “unicorn” in our language at Foundry Group and while we aspire to have extraordinarily valuable companies, we never approach it from the perspective of “could this be a billion dollar company” when we first invest.
Instead, we focus on whether or not we think we can make at least 10 times our money on our investment. Our view of a strong success in an investment in a 10x return. Our view is simple – we don’t really view anything below 3x return a success. Sure – it’s nice, but that wasn’t a real success. 5x – now that’s nice. 10x – ok – now we are in the success zone. 25x – superb. 50x or more – awesomeness.
We also know that when we invest in three people and an MVP, we have absolutely no idea whether this can be a billion dollar company. Nor do we care – we are much more focused on the product and the founders. Do we think they are amazing and deeply obsessed with their product? Do we understand their vision? Do we have affinity for the product? Do we believe that a real business can be created and we can get at least a 10x return on our investment at this entry point?
I recognize other VCs have different strategies than us, especially when they are investing at a later stage. Applying our model, if the entry point valuation is $100m or more, then you do have to believe that the company is going to be able to be worth over $1 billion if you use a 10x filter. But in my experience, most later stage investors are focused on a smaller absolute return as a threshold – usually in the 3x to 5x range. And, very late stage / pre-IPO investors already investing in companies worth over $1 billion are interested in an even smaller absolute return, often being delighted with 2x in a relatively short period of time.
So, let’s zone this in on an early stage discussion. Should the question “how can this be a $1 billion company” be a useful to question at the seed stage? I don’t think so. If it’s simply being used to elicit a response and understand what the entrepreneurs’ aspiration is, that’s fine. But if I asked this question and an entrepreneur responded with “I have no fucking idea – but I’m going to do everything I know how to do to figure it out” I’d be delighted with that response.
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post Your Words Should Match Your Actions. It was a generic rant that resulted from me watching a couple of VCs blow up their reputations with entrepreneurs I know because of how they treated them.
This morning I ended up on an email thread about this. I’m going to anonymize it, but you’ll get the point. The two people (who I’ll call “Entrepreneur” and “VC”) are both very successful, extremely smart, and very visible.
Entrepreneur: Thread below is 2+ years old, but resulted from VC asking me similar questions. Interestingly, when I (a year later) pinged VC about my new company, not even the courtesy of reply from him. Bad mojo. 🙂
Me: Welcome to the “assholeness-VC-factor.” Hey – I’m important – give me info. Oh – you are now raising money – fuck off.
Entrepreneur: I’m amazingly appreciative to short, polite “no thank you’s”. I don’t know whether VCs think that’s too much work, or whether they want to leave open the possibility of the “must have been caught in my spam filter” excuse when the startup becomes a rocket in 2 years?
I then went on a more serious rant explaining what I think is going on.
It’s worse that that.
In my book Startup Life (that I wrote with my wife Amy) I said that one of the key things that has made our relationship work is that I realized “my words had to match my actions.” After about decade of telling her she was the most important person in my life, and then being late to dinner, canceling things at the last minute because something else came up, or taking a phone call without even looking at who was calling when we were in the middle of a conversation, she’d had enough and our relationship almost ended.
My biggest behavior change 14 years ago was to focus hard on having my words match my actions, and my actions match my words. Simple to say, really hard to do.
Of course, it also works in a business context. I’ve learned, and deeply believe, that it’s the essence of being authentic. You can have any style you want – these two things just have to match up.
Sadly, many very successful people simply don’t understand or appreciate this. They put huge amounts of energy into developing a public persona. It could be PR, it could be speeches, or writing, or systematic campaigns over a period of time about themselves and their businesses.
But then their words and their actions don’t match up. Over and over again. It can be subtle or overt. It can be mild or jarring. It doesn’t matter – if they haven’t internalized the idea of their words and actions matching up, there is a long negative reputational effect.
And, as our email exchange demonstrates, it lingers. I have heard the same thing about that VC and I’ve experienced it personally. Yet his public persona is “entrepreneur friendly”, “very accessible”, “incredibly smart”, and “highly capable.” Yet, he completely blew you off, after asking you for something when you were a powerful and well-connected executive at a large company. Stupid behavior on his part.
Oh, and in addition, this VC missed a chance to invest in what is now a rocket ship. And the entrepreneur didn’t go back to him for the Series B because he got blown off the first time, so the VC missed two chances to invest.
Do your words match your actions? If you don’t know, ask yourself at the end of each day “did my words today match my actions.”
I heard a great phrase from Jenna Walker at Artifact Uprising yesterday. We had a Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network Colorado meeting with her and her partner and in the middle of the discussion about their business Jenna used the phrase “digital paralysis” to describe one of the things she thinks is driving the incredible engagement of their customers.
Her example was photography. Artifact Uprising came out of her original experience with photography, the dramatic shift to digital photography on iPhones and picture storage on Dropbox and Instagram, and the massive overwhelming feeling of having zillions of digital photos. In Jenna’s case, it’s caused a slow down of her photo taking (digital paralysis) because she’s overwhelmed with the massive numbers of photos she now has, doesn’t really have the energy to deal with them, and resists taking more because they’ll just end up along with the other zillions in Dropbox.
I totally identified with this. Amy and I have a huge number of digital artifacts at this point – with our enormous photo library being just one of them. The feeling of paralysis in dealing with them is substantial. After a brief tussle the other day over “hey – just share the photo stream with me of the stuff you are going to take today” followed by a struggle to figure out how to do it the way we wanted to do it and still have the photos end up in the same place, tension ensued and digital paralysis once again set it. I sent myself an email task to “spend an hour with the fucking photos on Dropbox” this weekend which I’ll probably end up avoiding dealing with due to digital paralysis.
Yesterday, my friend Dov Seidman wrote a great article in Fast Company titled Why There’s More To Taking A Break Than Just Sitting There. It’s worth a long, slow read in the context of reacting to being overwhelmed digitally as well as in the general intense pace of life today.
As I sat and thumbed through some of the beautiful photo books that Artifact Uprising creates, I could feel my brain slowing down and being less jangly as I settled into observing and interacting with something not-digital. Try it this weekend, and ponder it while you are taking a break. Pause, and explore why you are pausing, how it feels, and what you are doing about it. And see if it impacts your digital paralysis when you end the pause and go back to the computer.
Last night we had the Techstars Boulder Mentor Kickoff dinner. It’s an annual tradition at Techstars – we have a dinner for all mentors before we start the program. It’s a meet and greet for all mentors in the upcoming program, a great way to reconnect with friends, an intro to the companies in the upcoming program, and a reminder (and celebration) of the role of a mentor in Techstars.
Nicole Glaros, the Techstars Boulder managing director, held a great kickoff event at the Bohemian Biergarten. I ate too much Spätzle (man – that stuff has a lot of calories in it) but otherwise had an awesome time. I was especially gratified to see a number of new mentors for this year’s program. One of our goals with Techstars is to continuously expand the network, and bringing in and engaging new mentors in each program is a key part of that.
Given the new mentors, Nicole spent a few minutes going through the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. It reminded me of the importance of clearly defining what a mentor is and how a mentor can optimally interact with a startup, especially a very early stage one or one consisting of first time entrepreneurs.
Over the next six weeks I’m going to write 18 posts – going much deeper on each of the 18 items on the mentor manifesto. When we started Techstars, the word “mentor” was rarely used, typically referred to a single “mentor” that person had, and often connoted a very one-up / one-down type of “guidance relationship.” For those of you in legal or investment banking professions, the equivalent word was often “rabbi” – it was someone who looked after you, covered your ass, gave you advice, and helped you on your career.
We meant “mentor” in a different way. We’ve learned an enormous amount about what does and doesn’t work. What’s helpful or harmful. And how a mentor can get the most out of their side of the relationship. Today, it’s trendy to be a “mentor” especially to a startup. Unlike before, when mentor meant something very precise and narrow, it now is referred to a wide range of relationships and interactions.
Hopefully the next 18 posts, and the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, will help make the definition of mentors and the implementation of mentorship, at least in the context of high growth startups, precise in a new and ever more powerful way.
Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh have written an outstanding and important book called The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. I encourage you to get a copy right now and read it this weekend. If you are a CEO of a company Foundry Group has invested in, there’s no need to buy it – I just ordered 100 of them and they will be in your hands soon.
Reid and Ben previously wrote a book called The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. It is also excellent. It’s the first book students read during the course I teach with Brad Bernthal at CU Boulder called “The Philosophy of Entrepreneurship.”
Reid is well known as the co-founder of LinkedIn, a partner at Greylock, an angel investor in many successful companies including Facebook and Twitter, and one of the kingpins of the PayPal Mafia. I got to know Reid while serving on the Zynga board with him and he’s as advertised – a deep thinker, extraordinary strategist, and incredibly supportive partner to an entrepreneur. Most importantly, it’s very clear that the notion of building a strong personal brand (discussed in The Start-up of You) and approaching employee / employer pact with commitment and a very long term view (discussed in The Alliance) is a core part of his value system.
Ben, while less well known, has been Reid’s chief of staff for the past few years. He’s also a successful entrepreneur, having started Comcate, his first business, at age 14. Amy and I have become extremely close friends with Ben over the last decade and we view him as part of our extended family.
I don’t really know Chris, but by association he has a huge amount of credibility with me.
The Alliance starts out by punching you in the face to get your attention. It differentiates between the notion of “company as a family” and “company as a team.” The punch in the face is the idea that you can’t fire a family member (“Susy, you aren’t succeeding at doing your homework, so you are fired as our daughter”) so while “we are a family” is a time-worn metaphor for a company, it’s a poor one. Reid, Ben, and Chris suggest the notion of a team instead. And, instead of permanent employment, they use the concept of a tour of duty to redefine the employer / employee relationship from “lifetime employment” to “a well-defined and clearly stated pact between employer and employee.”
The book, and the concept, is tightly written and extremely readable. The book is an appropriate length – there’s no fat here – just substance. I particularly loved the chapter on Network Intelligence which describes an approach to have every person in your company use their network to get market and competitive intelligence for the company. In addition to the concept, the authors give us piles of examples, including some from Greylock on how to execute a brilliant market intelligence strategy.
When reflecting on The Alliance, I feel that Foundry Group works this way at a meta-level. If you extend “Foundry Group” to include all of the entities that we have co-founded, you quickly add in Techstars, FG Angels, FG Press, SRS|Acquiom, Gluecon, Defrag, and a few others. Then, add in the 70 companies we’ve invested in via Foundry Group and the 20 or so we’ve invested in through FG Angels. Then the 30 or so VC funds we are investors in. And the thousands of companies we are indirect investors in. That’s a big team, configured in lots of different structures, all over the US. Any member in good standing of any of these entities is a long term member of our team, regardless of what they do. Anytime one of the reaches out to me, I’ll always try to help any way I can. Sure – we aren’t perfect at this, but we try hard, and are going to keep trying even harder in the future.
Reid, Ben, and Chris – thanks for writing this book. I hope, in 20 years, it’s as important as The Organization Man by William Whyte was in its day.