Category: #GiveFirst

Jul 5 2020

Contemporary Mentors

The phrase “contemporary mentors” popped into my head on loop number six of eight on my morning run. I’m training for a Covid marathon, which is 27 loops around my property.

My pace is tentative as I’m still gearing up after a long break due to a back injury, but I’m letting the miles and the time on my feet build on the weekends.

Running in circles for hours is different than running in the mountains in Aspen during the summer. But, I’m afraid of going to Aspen right now because of Covid, and I’m afraid of leaving my property and running on the roads or the trails near Boulder.

So, I’m embracing the circles. Amy likes it because she can keep an eye on me and let Cooper come out for the last couple of loops. While I think he could run with me forever, she worries about him when he goes for more than three loops, which is about six miles for him given all the back and forth he does.

I’ve decided that I’m going to approach the second half of 2020 differently than I approached the first half. This weekend, I turned off a bunch of inputs. I had several long conversations with Amy, right after I meditated, but before I did anything else, including one today where I acknowledged that the organizing principle I’ve been operating with for the last year isn’t working for me. I spent a lot of time outside, but without feeling tethered to anything. I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling, instead of trying to catch up or get on top of the stuff. I laughed at the few absurd things that crossed my path, rather than letting them aggravate me. I thought some more about what I wanted to spend my time on and what I was going to delete.

None of this is new for me – it’s a regular repeating cycle. Sometimes it’s part of my burnout loop or a boom-bust work cycle. Other times it’s a function of not knowing my limits and getting depressed. Once it was a function of a self-induced depressive episode because I stupidly took Ambien for two weeks on an international trip. And sometimes it’s just random.

A little more than a year ago, I came up with a new organizing principle for how I was going to address my work. I thought it was clever, was proud of myself for coming up with it, and tried it for a while. About a month ago I realized that it was a failure and that I wasn’t happy with it. While several aspect were working, several weren’t, but most importantly I realized that my frustration with it and my determination to try to make it work, even when it wasn’t, was making me unhappy.

So, about a month ago, I threw it away. I didn’t stop any of the activities I was doing, but I threw away the organizing principle.

This morning, I told Amy that I had thrown it away. It was the first time I was able to articulate this clearly. I don’t have a new organizing principle yet, but I knew the one I was using wasn’t working.

When my running loops increased, I realized I needed to listen to something while I’m running. Usually, I run “naked” (without headphones), especially when I’m in the mountains or on trails. But, after a few 0.95-mile loops, I want some stimuli other than “another loop.”

I decided to go through some Tim Ferriss podcasts and listen to some of my friends that he interviewed. I think the world of Tim and have learned a lot from him, even though we haven’t spent a lot of time together. And, whenever I listen to any of his podcasts, I learn at least one thing, and they often cause me to think about a few things.

In order, over the past few longer runs, I’ve listened to:

It was in the middle of Seth’s interview that the phrase “contemporary mentors” popped into my head.

I was searching in the background for a phrase different than “entrepreneurial heroes.” I started my first business in the 1980s and my entrepreneurs heroes include Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Steve Case, and Dan Bricklin.

But Seth, Jerry, Ryan, Tim, Madeleine, and Jim are in a different category. They are mentors of mine, in a long list of mentors. Some – like Jerry – are soulmates. Others, like Madeline and Jim, are people I know a little bit but respect enormously. And Ryan and Tim are contemporaries on a different vector entirely.

Aha – “contemporary mentors.” The ideal mentor-mentee relationship is when the mentor and mentee become peers and learn from each other. But peer mentorship has never become an easy category for me to explain as it implies an evolution from a mentor-mentee relationship. What if that’s not what happened.

Tim and Seth – thank you. As I listened to you today on my run, I learned from each of you, while having a close emotional connection from my own relationship with each of you. And from it came a new phrase for me: “contemporary mentors.”

Jan 22 2020

Lessons from the First 20 Episodes of the #GiveFirst Podcast

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 HixRajat BhargavaElizabeth KrausJason MendelsonJannet BannisterHeidi RoizenMarc Nager & Dave MayerJohn ChinaSherri HammonsRebecca Lovell, and Harry Stebbings.

I’m enjoying co-hosting the #GiveFirst podcast with David. I hope you are enjoying listening to it.

Nov 8 2019

Give First Podcast with Rajat Bhargava

It was a delight to interview Rajat Bhargava for the Give First Podcast. We’ve been working together since 1994 when I made my first angel investment in Raj’s first company (NetGenesis). We’ve worked on a number of companies since then, some successful, and some not, but our friendship – even with our own personal ups and downs – has been a constant.

Raj covers a lot of ground in this podcast, including some origin stories, his relationship with Will Herman (who co-invested in NetGenesis with me at the very beginning, which is how he met Raj), a moment where I treated Raj poorly and our relationship could have easily gone off the rails if we hadn’t both put energy into acknowledging what had happened and getting back to a healthy place, and how he thinks about Give First, both in the Boulder startup community and at his current company JumpCloud.

Raj – 25 years later, I still learn something from you every time we talk. You are a gem. I’m so glad you came up to me after that MIT guest lecture oh so many years ago.

Aug 13 2019

Harry Stebbings on the Give First Podcast

Today’s Give First podcast features Harry Stebbings of the 20 Minute VC and a partner at on committing to building a network & giving first.

Harry is probably best known for his podcast, The Twenty Minute VC, the world’s largest media asset in venture capital, with over five million downloads per month. He’s talked with amazing VCs and entrepreneurs on over 2,800 shows.

When he was 13, Harry watched “The Social Network,” the movie about Facebook, and it inspired him to become an entrepreneur and investor. At 18, he set up the Twenty Minute VC podcast.

I was interviewed on Harry’s 65th episode in 2015. It was fun to travel back in time and listen to it. And, I love Harry’s Google Glass picture.

Harry is on episode 11 of the Give First podcast. We’ve made it to double digits which I’ve heard is a milestone for a lot of podcasts that stall out before that. Next step – triple digits. If you missed the last few along the way during my blogging vacation, they include John China (SVB), Sherri Hammons (The Nature Conservancy), and Rebecca Lovell (Create33).

May 9 2019

The Give First Podcast

David Cohen and I are doing a podcast together called Give First. Readers of this blog likely know that this is the mantra of Techstars and the title of an upcoming book of mine that will be published in 2020.

While I’ve been interviewed for many podcasts, I’ve never hosted one before. David and I have been massive fans of Harry Stebbing’s 20 Minute VC so we’ve modeled Give First after it. Harry really hit his stride after about 100 episodes so my guess is it’ll take us a while to be in the same zone as he is. It’s good to have something to shoot for!

The first episode is an intro with an overview. We’ve got a steady stream of episodes coming that are already recorded, so subscribe to Give First and give us feedback.

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.

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.

Dec 5 2018

Coach Rav’s 23 Life Choices

I saw an article about George Raveling recently in the Daily Stoic newsletter. Raveling – known as Coach Rav to many, has a pretty remarkable history. And an even better life philosophy that fits very nicely with #GiveFirst.

On his website, he has a page titled 23 Life Choices That Are In Your Control. It’s delightful and follows.

1. Be YOU, not them.

2. Do more, expect less.

3. Be positive, not negative.

4. Be the solution, not the problem.

5. Be a starter, not a stopper.

6. Question more, believe less.

7. Be a somebody, never a nobody.

8. Love more, hate less.

9. Give more, take less.

10. See more, look less.

11. Save more, spend less.

12. Listen more, talk less.

13. Walk more, sit less.

14. Read more, watch less.

15. Build more, destroy less.

16. Praise more, criticize less.

17. Clean more, dirty less.

18. Live more, do not just exist.

19. Be the answer, not the question.

20. Be a lover, not a hater.

21. Be a painkiller, not a pain giver.

22. Think more, react less.

23. Be more uncommon, less common.

If you just skimmed the list, I encourage you to go back and read it again. To slow down and really savor it, read each line out loud and then ponder what you are doing to make that choice on a daily basis.

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.

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 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.