As we continue deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, today’s item is about keeping information confidential.
Techstars operates on a FriendDA concept. It’s not official, but it’s understood that the entrepreneurs are going to bare their soul, be completely open and transparent, and not ask anyone to sign anything. In exchange, mentors will hold information in confidence.
This can be tricky. It’s hard to know what is confidential, a secret, something someone is merely pondering, a brilliant new idea, something that conflicts with something else you know about, or, well, something that is going to make someone upset if it gets around.
There’s a simple approach to this. Use your judgement. If you are uncertain, ask the person who you got the information from.
We operate this way at Foundry Group also. We don’t sign NDAs. If you don’t trust us, don’t share something with us. If you don’t want us to know something, that’s fine. If it’s important to you that something be held in confidence, feel free to say so. But assume we are respectful, conscientious about what we can and can’t share, and fundamentally default to holding information in confidence.
It’s kind of that simple. Remember my fuck me once rule. It’s my responsibility to tell you that I’m unhappy with what you did and it’s your responsibility to own it. That generates a second chance. There is no third chance.
One day in 2009 David Cohen and I were talking. Here’s what I remember the conversation being.
David: “I’m seeing so many seed deals from all the mentors and people I’m running into around Techstars but I’m not sure what to do with it.”
Brad: “Why don’t you raise an angel fund and just invest in them as a seed investor.”
David: “Do you really think I can do that?”
Brad: “Absolutely – you’re a great investor. Raise a small fund – $5 million. I’m in for $100,000 so you’ve got your first LP. I’ll help you get it done.”
David: “Ok – let’s go.”
And that’s how it started. Today, Techstars announced that it has raised its third fund, Techstars Ventures 2014, and closed it at $150 million. It follows two other funds, called Bullet Time Ventures, that were a $5 million fund raised in 2009 and a $25 million fund raised in 2011. The whole fund family is now being called Techstars Ventures going forward.
Shortly after that conversation (either the same day or the following day) my partners at Foundry Group (Seth, Jason, and Ryan) all committed to invest in the fund. We made a bunch of intros for David and he reached out to a number of the successful entrepreneurs and a few investors (as individuals) around the Techstars network that existed in 2009. Before he knew it David had $2.5 million lined up. He then did a first close and started investing. Within six months the balance of the $5 million was committed and he closed the fund.
By the time the dust settled on that fund, Bullet Time had made seed investments in about 50 companies, including GroupMe, SendGrid, Twilio, Orbotix, and Uber. Of the 45 other investments, some are zeros but six years later there are still 30-ish companies cranking away.
I’ve been an investor in a large number of VC funds dating back to 1996, including a bunch of the current generation of seed funds. Bullet Time 1 is one of the best performing funds I’ve ever invested in. It’s useful to remember that in 2009 there was some success starting in the current cycle, but we were on the tail end of the global financial crisis, the word “entrepreneur” hadn’t become part of the overall American lexicon (the White House still called things “small businesses”), and Uber was three guys and an idea.
In 2011, Techstars had begun to grow meaningfully as an organization. We had programs in Boulder, Seattle, Boston, and New York. We were starting to experiment with corporate partners through programs like Techstars Cloud, which we did with Rackspace. David was now visible as a highly desired angel investor across the country.
David: “How much do you think I should raise for my next fund?”
Brad: “At least $10 million but no more than $25 million.”
David: “Why those numbers?”
Brad: “You should be able to raise $10 million in a week from your existing investors – you’ve already given them back a bunch of their money. And it’s still just you so raising more than $25 million for a seed fund doesn’t really make sense.”
Bullet Time 2 closed at $25 million and David continued to invest.
On day around 2012 I got a call from Mark Solon. Mark’s a close friend, co-investor in a number of things, and a VC who has been involved as a Techstars mentor and investor in companies since the very beginning. About six months earlier Mark had very publicly decided not to raise a new VC fund with his existing partners for a variety of reasons, but continued to actively manage his firm.
Mark asked me if we could go for a walk. So we did. As we wandered down the Boulder Creek path, he told me he and David had been talking about him getting involved in Techstars more significantly, were both excited about it, but were having trouble figuring out exact roles.
Mark: “We don’t really have enough money in the VC fund for us to be partners in it.”
Brad: “Don’t think about it that way. Be partners now in the VC fund and ramp up to raise a much larger early stage fund, rather than just a seed fund.”
Mark: “Do you think we’d be good long term partners.”
Brad: “Fucking no-brainer. Just do it. Don’t think too hard about it. If it doesn’t feel right, you’ll know early while you are investing Bullet Time 2, well before you raise a new fund. And if it feels good, you’ll be off to the races.”
Mark went all in with David and Techstars and the result is not only Techstars Ventures and the $150 million fund, but incredible growth and progress with Techstars, in which Mark has been instrumental.
Along the way, I’ve watched my partner Jason help David and Mark structure and raise the fund. It’s been remarkable to work with Jason on it – I can play my special role and Jason can play his. All along the way our relationships with David, Mark, and the rest of the Techstars team continues to be magical. Sure, there are moments that are profoundly complex, frustrating, and disappointing, but watching the overall Techstars team, now led by David Brown, and the Techstars Ventures team, which includes not just Mark and David, but three other partners (Nicole Glaros, Jason Seats, and Ari Newman) has been pretty awesome.
It’s incredibly hard work that unfolds over time. Sometimes from the outside it looks like something just sprung to life. The “overnight success” dynamic of our world makes so many things feel like they just happened. Today, it’s nice for the Techstars team to relish their progress. But it’s super important to remember that it’s been hard won every step of the way, starting with a random day in 2006.
And it’s just beginning.
I’m in the home stretch of my next book co-authored with Sean Wise, titled Startup Opportunities: Know When To Quit Your Day Job, so I thought I’d procrastinate a little this morning and write another Techstars Mentor Manifesto blog post.
This one is about the ninth element, Clearly Separate Opinion From Fact.
We live in a world of assertions. Many of us, including me, often have a fuzzy line between opinions and facts. We interpret facts to fit our opinions, but then make our opinions broader than the underlying data. Opinions are formed from a single fact, rather than a set of several, or a lot of facts, to form a clearly substantiated opinion.
Entrepreneurs, investors, and anyone who plays a mentorship role often asserts an opinion as fact. I know that I fall into this trap regularly, both on the asserting and receiving end. I often catch others doing it and, when I challenge them based on my own data, they quickly revert to a position that they are expressing an opinion. But, in these cases, if I hadn’t challenged them, everyone else hearing the statement would view it as fact.
Now, opinions are extremely important. But they are different than facts. This is especially important for a first-time entrepreneur to realize. It’s equally important for a mentor to realize.
When you are expressing an opinion, it’s useful to frame it as such. When you are stating a fact, make sure your mentee knows it’s a fact.
In addition to separating opinions from fact, you should separate data from facts. While data is factual, the conclusion from the data is often an opinion. It’s easy to assert the data as a fact but this isn’t helpful and is often detrimental, since it’ll be incorporated into the mentee’s mind as a fact that they will start to extrapolate off of it as a fact.
As humans we get trapped in the fact / opinion / data matrix all the time. As a mentor, be careful and err on the side of being clear about what you are stating. Your goal is to help your mentee, not to be recognized as the smartest person in the room.
I always look forward to the annual Techstars video. I enjoy seeing it, and usually enjoy being part of it.
This year I’m one of your favorite Sesame Street characters. Hang in there for New Years Resolution #9.
Cookie cookie cookie. Give me cookie.
I’m fascinated with Detroit. When I was there in October 2012 with my partners Ryan and Jason to run the Detroit Marathon we talked about the idea of getting more involved there in some way. Jason grew up in Detroit and has lots of stories there. He goes back regularly to visit his parents and Ann Arbor where he went to school.
Since we were there, I’ve read a few books on Detroit and many articles that popped up about it’s downfall along with some of the entrepreneurial activities trying to revive the city. My partners and I believe that Detroit hit rock bottom around 2012 and in a decade has the potential to be an amazing city once again.
So, Jason and I started talking more about things we could do to positively impact the Detroit startup community and looped the Techstars gang into the conversation.
David Cohen, David Brown, and the team at Techstars grabbed it and ran with it. Last week Techstars announced the new Techstars Mobility program, Driven by Detroit. The local Detroit startup community engaged very powerfully in the idea. From the post about it:
“Throughout the development of the Techstars Mobility program, Techstars worked with Detroit based venture capital firms Fontinalis Partners, Detroit Venture Partners and Renaissance Venture Capital to recruit mentors and ensure capital was ready to deploy in the region. Many other venture firms have also contacted Techstars communicating their interest in bringing capital to Detroit.
Techstars will be bringing their proven accelerator model and extensive network of mentors, founders and corporations to Detroit to support this program. Techstars will also coordinate efforts across the Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystem as a member of the Detroit Technology Exchange (DTX), ensuring that Techstars can have a positive impact across the entire community. Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit will run for three years with a new class of 10 startups each year.
Several years ago I met Ted Serbinski. Three years ago he moved from San Francisco to Detroit to help rebuild the city. In his words:
“Ten years from now, San Francisco will be just as good as it is today. But in ten years, Detroit will be a roaring city once again, defining a new technology hub at the intersection of muscle and brains. Where do you want to be in ten years? Status quo? Or one of the heroes that rebuilt a city?”
I think Ted is awesome and it’s super exciting to have him join Techstars as the Managing Director of Techstars Mobility. He’s written a great story about how it came together and why it is so powerful at Joining Techstars in Detroit.
My partners and I at Foundry Group – especially Jason – will be playing a role in this new program. Also, expect something really fun from us in the next six months. Hint – it’s something we’ve done before that I’m not sure any other VC firm has ever done – at least not that I’m aware of.
And – if you missed it, Techstars also launched a new program with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota called Techstars++ with the Mayo Clinic. Look for a bunch of new Techstars++ programs coming, along with lots of interesting new startup communities in our future.
Thanks for the all notes of concern about my bike accident on Thursday. I’m doing a lot better – still a little fuzzy and tired feeling – but on the mend. I’ve gotten confirmation that it wasn’t a hit and run – I clearly lost control of the bike during a turn, crashed into a curb, went over, and landed on my head. Lights out for a while.
I’m done biking. I’ve never really been a cyclist – I’ve always been a runner. Given that I’ve now had two single bike accidents that were 100% my fault, I’m clearly not cut out for being on a two-wheeled vehicle. So – back to running.
Over the weekend I took it easy and just let my mind drift around. A lot of friends came over to visit us which was nice. We hung out in our backyard by the pool, enjoyed the sunshine, and I let my mind drift around.
I had some weird dreams – some were clearly PTSD – but some were stuff I’ve read recently. I listened to Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion on Audible over the past two months on my bike rides and runs and lots of weird associations with it came up in my dreams, which, if you’ve read the books, is delightfully recursive.
All of this kept leading me back to robots and drones. We are investors in a number of companies in this arena, including Sphero, 3D Robotics, and Modular Robotics, and I think we are just at the beginning of a decade long revolution that has been a long time coming.
My friends at Techstars agree and last week launched – with Qualcomm – the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. I mentioned it on my blog last week when writing about Mentors 8/18: Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts and I realized I missed a key nuance in the post, which was about engagement with new things.
It’s nice to talk about robots and drones. But if you don’t engage with them right now, you aren’t going to understand them, and the amazingly rapid trajectory they are going to be heading on. Reading science fiction can give you a sense of where they are going, but getting a drone right now from 3D Robotics, buying the new Ollie robot from Sphero, or grabbing the ModRobotics MOSS robot will change your understanding of these things. Oh – and these things are amazing fun.
Techstars and Qualcomm aren’t fooling around in this arena. Qualcomm gets this market – they’ve already been focused on it with their Snapdragon processor and work with Brain Corporation – and their participation in the program will be invaluable. The Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars, is another big leap forward for Qualcomm as they establish themselves as a leader in this market.
And – if you are an entrepreneur and want to go deep here along with hanging out in San Diego, check out the robotics revolution.
As we continue deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, element #8 is Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts.
But first, it’s worth noting that yesterday Techstars announced its newest accelerator program, this time the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. This is our first accelerator with Qualcomm, our first accelerator in San Diego, and all about Robotics. I’m psyched about the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator Mentor List, which includes a great mix of experienced Techstars mentors along with some new ones.
When I talk to a new mentor, I suggest that they focus on one program during the accelerator program. There’s a tendency as a mentor to skim or do a fly by, where you spend a little time with every company. In a typical Techstars program, this is between 10 and 13 companies, so if you spend an hour a week over the course of the program as a mentor, that’s about an hour per company in total.
In contrast, if you spend a few hours getting to know all the companies in the first two weeks and then commit an hour over the remaining ten weeks to one company, you can really go deep with them as a mentor.
We structure the Techstars programs so the first month is “mentor madness.” The first week of Techstars is total chaos as all of the entrepreneurs and mentors are getting up to speed. The next week or two is endless mentor meetings – lots of “get to know you sessions” – but a huge amount of substance in the mix for the founders. They suffer from a lot of mentor whiplash, where they get feedback from some mentors that contracts feedback from other mentors. This builds incredible muscle early, as the founders learn that the feedback from mentors is merely data that they have to process, not directions that they have to pursue or advice they have to listen to.
By week three, we are starting to more aggressively match lead mentors with companies. By the end of the first month, the best companies have engaged with, for least an hour a week, between three and five lead mentors. Each of these lead mentors has committed to go deep with the company and the best lead mentors limit themselves to one, or possible two (if they are very experienced mentors) companies during the program.
This doesn’t mean that the lead mentor doesn’t spend any time with any of the other companies. Many of the mentors, especially the experienced ones, spend more than an hour a week mentoring at Techstars. But they put extra focus and commitment on one of the companies.
They do this year after year, program after program. One doesn’t magically become a great mentor – you learn how to do it. I’ve seen lots of experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers show up for the first time as a mentor, engage, and just be horribly ineffective. At Techstars, we give all of the mentors feedback, try to help them to be better in real time, and when necessary, be very direct about how they can improve.
But nothing helps a mentor improve more than practice. Continuing to try new things, see how it works, get the feedback loop of mentoring a company, seeing the result, and helping some more. And most importantly, listening to the feedback from the entrepreneurs on what they think is helping them and what is getting in their way, slowing them down, confusing them, or undermining them.
Every mentor has her own style. But all mentors have limited capacity to mentor. Go deep with one company at a time, but do it over and over and over again.
Techstars Boulder Demo Day was last week and it was the best one yet. As I got up on stage to close things out, I was incredibly proud of all of the entrepreneurs, but even more proud as I looked out at the audience and saw many of the mentors who make Techstars the experience that it is.
Element seven of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Be Responsive.
Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s remarkable to me the number of people who don’t internalize this.
Being responsive means more than just responding to email and phone calls. It means more than being on time to meetings, closing the loop on things you commit to doing, and being intellectually and emotionally available to your mentee. These things are “hygiene issues” – if you can’t at least do this you aren’t going to be an effective mentor.
Being responsive means to be present. To engage with the mentee. To put yourself in her shoes and try to really understand what is going on.
Ponder some of the synonyms for the word responsive:
- quick to react to
- receptive to
- open to suggestions about
- amenable to
- flexible to
- sensitive to
- sympathetic to
- aware of
Receptive, amenable, flexible, sensitive, sympathetic, and aware. This requires real emotional intelligence on the part of the mentor.
Everyone has different ways of prioritizing their time and different modes for engaging with others. Understanding this about yourself, and then being clear and consistent about it, is important if you want to be an effective mentor.
You get to define your approach and what you mean by being responsive. While my approach is simply one way, I’ll use it as an example. I focus on three dimensions – a people hierarchy, interaction dynamics, and baseline expectations.
My people hierarchy is well-defined and has been for a long time. In descending order of importance (and responsiveness), I have me, Amy, my family, my partners, our staff, close friends, our investors, the CEOs of the companies we are investors in, the founders of the companies we are investors in, the employees of the companies we are investors in, our co-investors, service providers (lawyers, bankers, accountants) we work with, and then everyone else. I think of this as concentric circles with Amy and my family at the center, then my partners, then staff / friends / investors / CEOs / founders, then employees / co-investors / service providers, and then everyone else. I rarely rank individuals ahead of others within one of the circles, but I do plenty of short term prioritization based on whatever is going on.
My interaction dynamics are fuzzier. I hate the telephone so I reserve it for use with people I have a close relationship with. For everyone else, I’d rather interact via email. I used to travel constantly, but I’ve cut that down substantially in the past year, so I do a lot of video conferences. I don’t like having sitting meetings – I’d rather go for a walk, so I have 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute routes around town. I’m fidgety when I’m in a meeting that lasts longer than an hour, but I’ve trained myself to be in the moment for the meeting however long it takes and, if I can’t hang in, excuse myself for a little while and regroup. Overall, when I’m with another human, I’ve tried to shift away from multi-tasking and instead concentrate on one thing at a time, focusing on whatever is going on. When I’m not with humans, but in front of my computer, I shift into a “cover a wide range of things” mode, where I do a lot of short tasks switching between them.
My baseline expectations are straightforward. I respond to every email I get. I return all the phone calls I get – although often by email. I try to close the loop on anything someone has asked me to do. When I’m with someone, I am with that person.
Now – I don’t get a A+ on all of this, nor do I view that as important. It’s as not static – I expect that these will change over time. But by writing it down and committing to it, I define the structure in which I am responsive. But remember, these are the hygiene issues. This is the framework in which one can then be responsive.
If I did all of these things, but never listened, wasn’t receptive, flexible, or sympathetic I’d be a crummy mentor. By having empathy, being able to engage emotionally with a mentee, and being aware of what the mentee is going through, one becomes responsive to them and their needs.
I spent the day yesterday at the Disney Accelerator meeting with each of the teams and then had dinner with the CEOs and a lead mentor for each company. While I’m proud of all the Techstars programs, some of what I heard yesterday, especially around mentor engagement in the Disney program was remarkable. Our premise when we started doing branded accelerators with large companies was that we’d get deep mentor involvement from execs at the company we are partnering with. In Disney’s case, the access, exposure, and support of the Disney executives as mentors for the 11 companies in the program has been extraordinary.
As I continue my series on the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, which I’m planning to turn into an book called “Give First” that FG Press will publish early next year, I come to Manifesto Item #6: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way.
When I reflect on my best mentors, they are very long term relationships where I hope they’ve now gotten as much from me as I’ve gotten from them. I call this “peer mentoring” and – while it can start as an equal relationship, it’s magical when it evolves from a mentor – mentee relationship.
Following are two examples from my own life.
Len Fassler is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the honor of knowing. Len and his partner Jerry Poch bought my first company in 1993. I still remember the first time I met Len, sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boston, wondering to myself “who is this guy and what does he want?” After Len and Jerry bought my company, the two of them took me under their wing and exposed me to doing deals. In addition to having my company acquired, I worked with them on the diligence team for a number of other acquisitions. They were both incredibly patient with me since I knew nothing about M&A or investments, and when I started making angel investments a few months after my company was acquired, they followed on, invested with me, and invited me into some of the companies they were investing in. After I left AmeriData, my relationship with each of them blossomed, but in different ways. Jerry and I made some VC investments together, but Len and I started several companies together. One of them – Interliant (where we were co-chairman) – was a huge success for a while, reaching a peak market cap of about $3 billion on NASDAQ. The company was decimated by the collapse of the Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt. Len and I spent thousands of hours together during this time and the amount I learned from working side by side with him can’t be quantified or categorized. We continued to work on other stuff together after Interliant, and enjoyed some successes that were sweet and satisfying after the ending pain of the Interliant experience.
If someone said I was a vessel for perpetuating and evolving Len’s business approach and personal philosophy to people throughout time and space, I’d accept that.
At the same time, I’ve heard Len say many times that’s he’s learned a huge amount from working with me. I know I am the key reason he no longer wears a tie at work, but the dance and intermingling of our experiences, personal philosophies, joys (highs), miseries (lows), and shared time has shaped both of us. Len’s 82 and I’m 48, so he’s definitely the mentor and I’m the mentee in the relationship. But after over 20 years of working together, we have a deep, intimate, peer relationship.
Charlie Feld is my dad’s brother / my uncle. I referred to him as Uncle Charlie the other day in my post From Punch Cards to Implants. He introduced me to my first company when I was 11 and allowed me to tag along with him for many years into my mid-20s. I sat in executive meetings at DEC and Lotus that I had no business being a part of, learned about EIS’s when I was a teenager, got early access to Compaq portables that hadn’t been released yet, and generally got exposed to how IT and MIS worked in large companies. Charlie started his own company, The Feld Group, in 1992, when my company (Feld Technologies) was five years old. Suddenly, Charlie and I were having peer discussions about our respective consulting businesses. After I sold my company and started investing in companies in 1994, Charlie and I talked regularly about the Internet, which was just emerging as something that large companies should pay attention to. At the same time, Charlie exposed me to what he was doing to re-architect and modernize enormously complex and disastrous legacy systems at places like Delta and Burlington Northern. In addition to helping me understand a number of fundamental things about technology at scale, I got exposed to the complexity of very large organizations, both from the top down and outside in.
In 2000, I invested via Mobius Venture Capital in The Feld Group and joined the board. This took our relationship to a new level. While I was now investor / partner / board member, the intellectual and emotional intimacy of our relationship increased. The Feld Group grew rapidly during this time period until it was acquired in 2004 by EDS. While aspects of my universe during this time were excruciating due to the bursting of the Internet bubble, my experience with Charlie and The Feld Group was grounding and enlightening as it gave me a window into the success and importances of enterprise IT while all the startups around me were melting down.
As with my relationship with Len, I feel that my relationship with Charlie is a peer relationship today. While he’s 25 years older than me, we learn from each other in every interaction. We continue to work closely together – Charlie’s newest book “The Calloway Way” is being published by FG Press and we are going to do some book events together to help both executives and entrepreneurs understand the magic of Wayne Calloway and his management approach.
Each of these relationships are long term ones – Len and I since 1993 and Charlie and I since I was born in 1965. I treasure every moment I have with each of them. Sure – we have conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, but they have been profound in shaping my development as a business person and a human. As mentors, they gave first in every sense of the word. And I hope they feel like I’ve given back at least as much.
Today Techstars announced an “equity back guarantee” for any company that goes through the Techstars program starting in 2015.
We’ve been talking about this for a while. One of Techstars’ matras is #givefirst which builds off my “give before you get” philosophy that I highlight in my book Startup Communities as a key part to building a great startup community.
As we talked about this, we realized that we could apply this directly to Techstars. We periodically encounter founders during the selection process who question the value of Techstars. It’s not that they don’t value it, it’s that they aren’t sure it’ll be worth it. Our solution historically has been to introduce them to Techstars alumni, which almost always results in the founders understanding the value of the program and jumping in with both feet.
One day we started bouncing around the cliche “let’s put our money where our mouth is” which quickly morphed into “let’s put our equity where our mouth is.” We are extremely confident in the value of Techstars and know that after someone goes through Techstars, they value it, often much higher than the cost of the program in the equity that they’ve given us to participate in it.
So we decided to launch an equity back guarantee. Our terms for going through Techstars are unchanged, but if at the end of the program you aren’t delighted, you can ask for some or all of your equity back. The only requirement is that you have to give us detailed feedback on what you didn’t find useful about Techstars.
While I wish my lawyers, accountants, and investment bankers offered a money back guarantee, I accept that isn’t changing anytime soon. However, I encourage all accelerators and entrepreneurial service providers to consider offering this. After all, our mission is to help entrepreneurs.