The day after the election, Alex Iskold (Techstars NY Managing Director) wrote a great post titled Dear Founders, I Commit to Double My Support For You and Your Startups. It’s vintage, wonderful Alex along with a series of specific things he’s going to do.
- Work even more closely with the founders to help them with their financings.
- Help founders drive up revenue, achieving profitability and independence.
- Send even more introductions, connect even more people.
- Answer every single email and every single tweet from a founder.
- Meet more founders in NYC and around the world and give feedback.
- Always iterate on my calendar and make more time for the founders.
- Speak at public events in NYC and around the world about entrepreneurship.
- Blog more about topics founders care about and want to read about.
- Publish my (long in the works) book for founders.
Today, Alex wrote a post titled Introducing Techstars Weekly Diversity and Inclusion Office Hours for Founders in NYC. Every Tuesday from 5pm – 7pm a group of Techstars employees in NY will meet with any female, minority, LGBTQ, or immigrant founder about anything. Sign up here.
In addition to Alex, other Techstars folks who will do these office hours include KJ Singh and Jillian Canning who help Alex run the Techstars NY City Program, Jenny Fielding who runs the Techstars IoT and Fintech Programs, Eamonn Carey who runs Techstars Connection, and Jenny Lawton, who recently joined Techstars as a Chief Operating Officer.
Bravo gang – I love seeing things like this just happen.
Yesterday Techstars announced the launch of Techstars Kansas City. This is a city-based horizontal accelerator similar to the ones we have in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York City, London and Berlin. Applications open in January 2017 and the program will run in July 2017.
I have a long history with Kansas City. I almost grew up in Kansas City, as the two cities my parents looked at when moving from Boston were Kansas City and Dallas (they chose Dallas.) In the mid to late 1990s, I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kauffman Foundation working with Jana Matthews on “learning programs for high growth entrepreneurs.” During this time, Jana and I initiated a deep partnership between the Kauffman Foundation and YEO (the Young Entrepreneurs Organization). I spent about a day a month in Kansas City, during which time I developed a deep respect for the Kauffman Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman (Mr. K), and his value system around entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
In 2013 when Google announced that Kansas City would be the first city in the country to have Google Fiber, I bought a house in the first neighborhood that was being wired up with Google’s gigabit Internet. This was inspired by Ben Barreth, who was the first person to buy a house in the neighborhood and turn it into a hacker house. Lesa Mitchell, at that time at the Kauffman Foundation, found the house for me and did all the on the ground work for me. Later in 2013, Techstars and Sprint launched the Sprint Accelerator, which Techstars ran for three years.
As a result of this activity, Kansas City has become an important startup city in Techstars network. Earlier this year we started talking more about our long term view for our involvement in the Kansas City Startup Community and recruited Lesa Mitchell to lead the effort for us as the Managing Director of Techstars Kansas City.
I giggle with joy when I think about working with Lesa closely again. There’s a long list of things we did together when she was at the Kauffman Foundation, we share very similar visions for startup communities, and – well – she’s just dynamite.
I’m going to be in Kansas City on Monday for the Kauffman Fellows Reunion VC Summit and the 20th anniversary of the Kauffman Fellows Program. I joined the Kauffman Fellows board last month (more on that in a post soon) and David Cohen (Techstars co-CEO) and I are doing an event Tuesday afternoon about what Techstars is doing next in Kansas City. Come join us if you are in town and interested.
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.
For the next 90 days, Amy and I are matching every gift to the Techstars Foundation on a 1:2 basis up to $100,000 from us. Our overall goal is to raise at least $300,000 for the Techstars Foundation by the end of the summer.
If Techstars has touched you in any positive way, I’d request that you consider making a grant to the Techstars Foundation. This request includes anyone who has gone through a Techstars accelerator, done a Startup Weekend, participated in a Startup Week, receives Startup Digest, or has been a mentor or investor in any Techstars company or program. Or anyone else who has been positively motivated or influenced by Techstars in any way.
When we started Techstars in 2006, our goal was to change the way early stage company creation and innovation worked. While we didn’t have the words for it then, we’ve evolved the language and the mission of the organization over the last decade which we now summarize in the tagline “Techstars is the global ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs build great businesses”
As part of building this global ecosystem of entrepreneurs, I’ve observed and experienced a massive issue around diversity in entrepreneurship. This is not a new issue to me as I’ve been working with various organizations, such as National Center for Women & Information Technology, since 2005.
Last year, in a conversation with the Techstars leadership team, we decided to start the Techstars Foundation with the goal of improving diversity in entrepreneurship. While we were already doing lots of things internally around this, by creating the foundation we have taken it up a level, as evidenced by our first five grants that were made last month.
Amy and I decided to launch this challenge grant as part of a larger gift from us to the Techstars Foundation. We hope you join us and support our efforts.
Techstars had an incredible year in 2015 and grew the organization on many dimensions. If you want a full view of what Techstars is – and is doing – today, take a look at the 2015 Global Impact Report.
To everyone who has been involved in Techstars in any way, thank you!
There are two common ways to scale a system – horizontally or vertically. If you are a software engineer, you probably get this instinctively. If you don’t know what this is, let’s work with the simple Wikipedia definition which is pretty good.
- Scale Vertically (or “scale up”): Add resources to a single node in a system, typically involving the addition of CPUs or memory to a single computer.
- Scale Horizontally (or “scale out”): Add more nodes to a system, such as adding a new computer to a distributed software application.
Think of vertical scaling as building a bigger monolithic machine and horizontal scaling as add more machines to the system. Or, if you want a business construct, vertically scaling would be adding more people in one location while horizontal scaling would be creating a bunch of new locations, optimally with a similar footprint to the previous locations.
These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can scale vertically and horizontally at the same time. But while many contemporary technology approaches embrace scale horizontally, many business approaches are limited to primarily scaling vertically.
If you’ve spent any time with me, you know that scaling horizontally is a huge part of how I think. My entire world functions as a large and wide distributed network. However, for the past eight years, my partners and I at Foundry Group haven’t once scaled vertically (we haven’t added any partners since 2007 when we started) until we added Lindel Eakman as part of Foundry Group Next.
Our reach, network, visibility, and impact has grown significantly since 2007. As part of this, we’ve done many things to scale horizontally. Co-founding and helping build Techstars is an example of that. In addition, embedded in the Techstars growth model is a horizontal scaling strategy.
If you reflect on one part of Techstars – the accelerator programs – we’ve added the following new programs in 2015.
- Techstars Mobility (Detroit)
- Techstars Berlin (Berlin)
- Techstars METRO (Berlin)
- Techstars IoT (NYC)
- Barclays (New York, South Africa and Israel)
- Techstars Healthcare, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai (Los Angeles)
- Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target (Minneapolis)
- Virgin Media Accelerator (London)
- Techstars Atlanta, in partnership with Cox Enterprises (Atlanta)
Each of these accelerators is based on the same model that we use to run all of the Techstars accelerator programs. We feel that we have mastery over an approach to a mentor-driven accelerator, run by a small team, in any geography around the world, that is another node on the ever expanding horizontal network that is Techstars. These programs don’t run in isolation – rather they are part of a horizontal scaling strategy based on a premise that you can build startups, and a startup community, anywhere in the world.
When you ponder Techstars’ acquisition of UP Global, especially if you think about how horizontal scaling and geography intersect, you get a glimpse of another layer of functionality that we just added to the horizontal scaling model. In addition to adding a bunch of new nodes, we also added new functionality to each node.
Remember that horizontal and vertical scaling are not mutually independent. Techstars growth from 55 employees at the end of 2014 to 131 employees as of today is happening on both horizontal and vertical dimensions. But the horizontal leverage that we’ve created, and figured out how to replicate, is as powerful as anything I’ve ever encountered in business.
I’m looking forward to 2016 on both dimensions.
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.
Techstars Boulder Demo Day is this week. It always marks the true end of summer for me and it’s a reminder that I stalled out on my Techstars Mentor Manifesto series of blog posts.
The last one I wrote was #11: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine. It’s an important life rule – either commit or don’t commit – but choose! Mentor Manifesto #12 is also a good life rule: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know.
We all know Mr. Smartest Guy In The Room. I find him insufferable and have nicknamed him Mr. Smartypants. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Mr. Smartypants in my world as he inhabits the bodies of some entrepreneurs and the souls of a lot of investors. Regardless of who he manifests himself in, he’s still tiresome and when there are two of him in the room, watch out.
The best mentors are not Mr. Smartypants. While a great mentor knows a lot and has had plenty of experiences, she’s always learning. The best mentor/mentee relationships are peer relationships, where the mentor learns as much from the mentee as she teaches the mentee. There’s no room in this relationship for Mr. Smartypants.
I know a lot about some things. And I know very little, or nothing about a lot more things. My business and technology experience is deep in software, where even the hardware companies we are investors in (Fitbit, Sphero, Makerbot, Glowforge, littleBits, and some others) are what we like to refer to as “software wrapped in plastic.” At the essence of it all is software and that’s what I know best.
But I don’t know all software. And I especially don’t know vertical markets. We’ve consciously stayed horizontal in our investing, being much more interested in our themes which apply to many different vertical markets. But ask me about a vertical market, whether it be entertainment, real estate, insurance, auto, food, energy, or financial services and I’ll often approach it with a beginners mind.
In some cases I think something generic will apply to a vertical market. But when asked about something structural, even though I’ve had lots of different experiences, read a zillion magazine articles over the years, and might have some opinions, as a mentor I’m quick to say I Don’t Know, unless I’m confident that I do.
When I find myself in an “I Don’t Know” situation as a mentor, I immediately start trying to figure out who I can refer the entrepreneur to who might know something about the situation. And, just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I’m not curious about finding out more. I’ll often stay engaged and hear what the mentor has to say, just so I get the benefit of having more data in my head to play around with in the future.
I say “I don’t know” or some version of it at least daily. How often do you say it?
There are two common email conventions in my world that I use many times a day in Gmail. I don’t remember where either of them came from or how much I influenced their use in my little corner of the world, but I see them everywhere now.
The first is +Name. When I add someone to an email thread, I start the email with +Name. For example:
Gang – happy to have a meeting. Mary will take care of scheduling it.
Now, why in the world can’t gmail recognize that and automatically add Mary to my To: line? If I needed to do “+Mary Weingartner”, that would be fine. Gmail is supposed to be super smart – it should know my address book (ahem) or even my most recently added Mary’s and just get it done.
The other is bcc: Whenever I want to drop someone from an email chain, I say “to bcc:” For example:
Joe – thanks for the intro. To bcc:
Pauline – tell me more about what you are thinking.
Then, I have to click and drag on some stuff in the address field to move Joe from the To: line to the bcc: line.
Dear Developers Working On Email Clients Of The World: Would you please put a little effort into having the email client either (a) learn my behavior or (b) Add in lots of little tricks that are common, but not standard, conventions?
I’m hanging out with Morris Wheeler and his family for a few days in Cleveland. I first met Morris through my friend Howard Diamond, currently the CEO of MobileDay (which I’m on the board of). Both Morris and Howard are extraordinary Techstars mentors, so I was motivated this morning to knock out another post in my Deconstructing The Mentor Manifesto series as foreplay for me starting to work on my next book, #GiveFirst.
When we started Techstars in 2006, the concept of a mentor was very fuzzy. There were many people who called themselves “advisors” to startups, including a the entire pantheon on service providers. While the word mentor existed, it was usually a 1:1 relationship, where an individual had a “mentor”. It was also more prevalent in corporate America, where to make your way up the corporate ladder you needed a “mentor”, “sponsor”, or a “rabbi.”
We decided to use the word “mentor” to describe the relationship between the participants in the Boulder startup community who were working with the founders and companies that went through Techstars. We had our first program in Boulder in 2007 and had about 50 mentors. Many were local Boulder entrepreneurs, a few were service providers who were particularly active in the startup community (including a few investors), and some were non-Boulder entrepreneurs such as Dick Costolo (ex-Feedburner – then at Google) and Don Loeb (ex-Feedburner – also then at Google, now at Techstars as VP Corporate Development). Basically, I reached out to all my friends and said “would you be a mentor for this new Techstars thing we are doing?”
At the time, we had no real clue what the relationship between mentor and founder would be. We knew that we wanted real engagement – at least 30 minutes per week – rather than just an “advisor name on a list.” We expected that engaging local mentors would be easier than non-local mentors. We defined rules of engagement around what mentoring meant, which did not preclude early investment, but did preclude charging any fees during the mentoring period.
Over time, we realized – and figured out – a number of things. When I talk about the early days of Techstars, remember that the concept of a “mentor-driven accelerator” didn’t exist and that the idea of an accelerator was still in its invention phase.
One of the biggest lessons was encapsulated in this part of the mentor manifesto. As mentorship became a thing, we suddenly had a supply of mentors that overwhelmed us. Everyone wanted to be a mentor. In 2008, we knew a little about what was effective and what wasn’t, so we continued to try to be inclusive of anyone who wanted to be a mentor, although I’m sure we blew this in plenty of cases. But we started seeing lots of mentors who did a single flyby meeting with the program, but never really engaged with any of the founders or companies in a meaningful way.
It probably took us until 2011 to really understand this and put some structure around it. By now, we had programs in multiple cities and managing directors who had different styles for engaging the local mentor community. And, mentorship was no longer a fuzzy word – it has shifted over into trendy-language-land and everyone was calling themselves a mentor, even if they weren’t. And being a mentor for a program like Techstars suddenly started appearing as a job role on LinkedIn.
Today we’ve got deep clarity on what makes for effective mentorship. And, more importantly, what makes a mentor successful and additive to an accelerator. A fundamental part of this is a commitment to engage. Really engage. As in spend time with the founders and the companies. It doesn’t have to be all of them – but it has to be deep, real, and with a regular cadence (at least weekly) over the three month program.
If you aren’t ready or able to commit, that’s totally cool. Don’t be a mentor, but you can still engage with the program and the companies through the philosophy I’ve talked about many times of “being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage” (principle three of the Boulder Thesis from Startup Communities).
And yes, this one is a hat tip to Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.”