As we come to the end of a particularly noisy and contentious election cycle, a thought echoes over and over in my mind – we need more entrepreneurs in Congress. As I continue to believe that innovation and entrepreneurship are the key drivers to our economic future, it’s frustrating to hear such little cogent discussion around it.
I recently got a call from a long time friend, Martin Babinec. Martin is running for Congress in Upstate New York (District 22) as an Independent. We met in 1991 when Martin had just started his company (TriNet – now a public company) and Feld Technologies (my first company) was a dozen people. We’ve been friends ever since and when he told me he was running for Congress, I smiled, gave him feedback, and listened to his reasoning.
He recently did a debate with his two other candidates at Colgate University. It was sent to me yesterday and I watched it last night in the background as I was grinding through email. It was incredibly refreshing after watching each of the presidential debates. Martin did a great job and reminded me why I think more people like Martin should be in Congress.
When I think of his background compared to the other candidates, and how he ended up running for Congress, it’s a powerful narrative. He moved his family back to his home town of Little Falls NY in 1999 to be closer to his parents (and his kids grandparents) and then commuted to Silicon Valley for 11 years while running TriNet. He saw first hand how the lack of new, innovative companies caused some of the best talent in Upstate New York to leave – and decided to do something about it.
In 2010 Martin started a non-profit called Upstate Venture Connect with a mission is to connect first time entrepreneurs in new industries with the resources who can help them across the entire Upstate NY region. He helped launch six seed capital funds, three college accelerator programs, the StartFast Venture Accelerator. He engaged deeply in his startup community and was one of the leaders.
When he called me about running for Congress, my first question to him was “why are you doing this?” He was clear – he’s frustrated with hearing politicians talk about creating jobs and then repeating the failed corporate welfare strategies of the past as they hope for a different result. His goal was to shift the discussion and resources towards fostering an environment that supports local innovative companies and a thriving startup community over attracting businesses to the region. Ultimately, he thinks – as do I – that this is the best long term approach to creating vibrant economies.
Rather than play into the existing political infrastructure in New York, Martin did what any great entrepreneur does and started a new political party. He’s running as an independent, having created the Upstate Jobs Party.
I hope Martin gets elected – I know he’d be a strong, thoughtful, capable, and disciplined member of Congress. He’s an incredibly hard worker, which I respect immensely. And he’s a critical thinker, capable of listening and learning about things he’s being exposed to for the first time.
District 22 covers a big area in the middle of Upstate New York (roughly Utica to just east of Syracuse and south to Binghamton.) If you are in this region, I strongly encourage you to support Martin Babinec for Congress!
The following is a guest post by Bill Douglas about divorce and the entrepreneur.
I got divorced when I was 24 years old while running my first company. I was fortunate that I didn’t have any kids so it was more like a nasty breakup after a long relationship, but the added complexity of marriage, family linkages, and all the emotional stuff surrounding it was one of the big (but not the only) input into the multi-year depressive episode I had.
I continued to run my company until we sold it when I was 27. But the struggle, stigma, and pain of the divorce lingered in the background for a long time. Fortunately, I ended up in a relationship with my now-wife Amy (I used to refer to her as my “current wife” – now she’s definitely the “last wife I’ll ever have.”) This relationship helped me get through this period of my life while running my company while dealing with all of my own shit at the same time.
If you are a divorced entrepreneur, Bill runs a closed Facebook group for divorced entrepreneurs (I recently joined it.) And, keep reading – his post is powerful.
I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life and I’ve been divorced for seven years now. Going through divorce was excruciatingly painful. Not just because of the divorce itself and splitting up a family, but because of the added loneliness common for most entrepreneurs.
In the past few years I’ve become acutely aware of the plight of the divorced entrepreneur. This seldom-discussed topic almost seems taboo in business circles. So many become isolated in this precarious, solitary, often disastrous, post divorce quandary, which I believe deserves more attention within the entrepreneurial community.
This is a real and significant problem. Since I began writing about this topic, so many entrepreneurs have contacted me. I’ve become immersed in the issue and am passionate about helping others in this stage.
The positive qualities that spark the entrepreneurial fire can become a liability when self-reliance inhibits the ability to self assess and acknowledge the need for assistance. That positive and driven nature can isolate, leaving one shouldering the weight of the world.
Entrepreneurs understand the stresses, the loneliness, the life of being the founder, the visionary, the reason you have a company. Add to that the pressures of a divorce process and it’s a recipe for depression. The entrepreneur becomes no longer alone simply in the business, but post divorce he/she is alone at home and in life, too.
I’ve seen entrepreneurs walk away from successful companies because they were so worried they were going to lose their relationship with their kids. They sought balance, but abandoned their assets and income. Yes, our kids are always more important than our work, No question there. But this is not an either-or scenario. We can be divorced parents and also be successful entrepreneurs.
I’ve witnessed entrepreneurs struggle with whether to tell shareholders and key personnel what they were going through at home, for fear of losing the confidence of those that believed in them. I know I struggled with this, and when I finally told my team they were upset I hadn’t shared earlier. Every one of them was incredibly supportive; it was my own fear that kept me quiet.
I personally know several entrepreneurs that struggle with anxiety, and even worse, depression after divorce. Their world is turned upside down. Their entrepreneurial “freedom” becomes their mental prison of loneliness and failure. For months after my divorce, I would take my sons to school and return home to get back into bed. I escaped the real world, and all the negativity that came with my emotionally imprisoned reality, by sleeping.
Without any doubt, keeping those negative feelings inside only harms us. Refer to How Keeping It Bottled Up Can Kill The Divorced Entrepreneur. “Particularly because I kept my emotions bottled up inside, as a divorced entrepreneur I became demoralized to the point that I and my company suffered.”
Eventually the day came when I’d had enough. I decided to begin rebuilding after divorce. I’d made the trek through the mud of divorce and now wanted to craft a new life, revive my business, and design my next chapter. Even when I made this critical and conscious decision, I had to do the work and be relentless through the process.
And, yes, there is a process. Winging here it is dangerous, not to mention painfully slow. As entrepreneurs we’re bold and often fearless. Age and experience have taught me to ask more questions and assume I don’t know, even when I think I do. In this case, I asked for help and sought experience shares. I had a counselor. I devoured books. I journaled. I did the self-work.
Going from simply existing in life and in business, struggling with depression, lacking the vision, energy and fire I once had, to mastering the family/life/business balancing act and onward to living ferociously again was a massive shift. This is no simple feat. It was exhausting on every level, but rewarding in ways I’d never imagined.
If you are an entrepreneur and you are rebuilding after divorce, I recommend beginning with these:
Note that none of these actions correlate directly to your business. The recommendation is to work less and rebuild you. Until I broke my patterns, all the angst was trapped inside me. That’s where the stress ate me alive. I wouldn’t wish that emotional dungeon on anyone.
Regarding stretching my circles, I related well with others in the same spot as me post divorce. I was fortunate to be in EO Colorado and there I found several other entrepreneurs exactly where I was in life. We collaborated, we shared stories, advice, books, tears, laughter, and yes, even drinks.
For this reason, I moderate a free but closed Facebook group for divorced entrepreneurs and invite all that fit this description to join here. Everything and everyone is there for the support of entrepreneurs rebuilding after divorce.
After I completed what I call the recovery shift, I worked much less and made much more. I became healthy and truly happy again. I am closer now to my sons than I’ve ever been. I don’t say these to boast. Instead, I share these to give you hope. If I can do this then anyone can – particularly an entrepreneur!
Has the word entrepreneur become too trendy as to have lost its meaning? I’m hearing it and the word entrepreneurship being used in so many conversations incorrectly.
Here’s a simple example. On a daily basis, I have an email exchange with someone who says they are an entrepreneur. I respond “What company did you start?” They respond, “Oh, I didn’t start a company, I was the fifth employee of Company X.”
Another example is the email that I get from someone in a large company who says “I want to create more entrepreneurship within BigCo.”
Now, these are well-intentioned people so I’m not critical of them. But I’m critical of the use of the word entrepreneur in these contexts.
I like Wikipedia’s definition.
“Entrepreneurship is the process of starting a business, a startup company or other organization. The entrepreneur develops a business plan, acquires the human and other required resources, and is fully responsible for its success or failure.”
Merriam Webster’s is also solid.
“a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money”
This morning I read an article in the New York Times titled With Start-Ups, Greeks Make Recovery Their Own Business. Other than the fact that the New York Times hasn’t yet figured out that It’s Startup, Not Start-up or Start Up it was a good article that got me thinking about this rant.
In 2010, the Startup America Partnership finally got the US government to separate the notion of small businesses with high growth businesses. The word startup was firmly introduced into our lexicon as shorthand for high growth business and now is a comfortable one. While we are still stuck with one government organization – the Small Business Administration – that tries to help both small businesses and startups, the language around this continues to evolve.
For example, I think we are finally starting to differentiate between local businesses (your local restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gas station, movie theater, clothing store, art store, or anything else that sells to your local community) from a startup business (a company that might be small, but is selling to anyone anywhere in the world). The language isn’t quite right, as local businesses can evolve into startups (The Kitchen, run by Kimball Musk, is a good example). But we are getting there.
And then there are a several words trying to characterize different stages of startups. A scaleup is a startup that is scaling quickly. A gazelle, a word that has been around for a while and is becoming popular again, is a startup that has achieved critical mass and is a rapidly growing company, kind of like a scaleup, but falling comfortably into the animal taxonomy that seems to include unicorns and dragons.
And that takes us back to the word entrepreneur. Theoretically, the entrepreneur is a person who creates any one of these companies (local business, high growth business, startup, scaleup, gazelle, unicorn, but not a peppercorn.) And entrepreneurship is the act of creating and operating the business. Note the and clause – you need to be the creator and the operator to be an entrepreneur, not just the operator.
As I type this, I realize I’ve buried the lead. I’ve always loved the word founder to describe the person the word entrepreneur refers to. When I started Feld Technologies, I referred to myself and my partner Dave as the founders of Feld Technologies. This was well before anyone used the word entrepreneur (the 1980s) and for many years I used the word founder. Somehow my brain shifted to entrepreneur and entrepreneurship and that’s taken over for me. But it’s now uncomfortable, awkward, and tiresome.
I think I’m going back to founder. It’ll be interesting to see how hard it is to rewire my brain. We’ll see if it lasts. While it’s not clear to me that it matters, given my pedantic obsession with eliminating the hyphen in words like startup and email, it’ll be fun – at least for me – to see where it goes.
When David Cohen and I came up with the idea for the Global Accelerator Network (GAN) in 2010, we counted roughly 100 accelerator programs around the US that were founded following the Techstars model. We labeled Techstars a “mentor driven accelerator” and reached out to others who were using the same approach to create what became GAN. From that initial outreach, 16 high quality accelerator programs joined us to launch the network.
Since then, accelerators have appeared all over the world. Some accelerators are incredibly high quality. Others are not. Some are major contributors to their startup communities. Others are detrimental to it. As with everything new that grows quickly, it’s a chaotic system with lots of innovation, creative destruction, and rapid change and learning that – if done well – is a great example of the power of the Lean Startup approach to entrepreneurship.
Today, the Global Accelerator Network is a worldwide organization of 52 accelerators located in over 60 cities around the world. We’ve maintained a high quality across the membership while expanding the network by being selective. Not every accelerator is/could be/would be a member in GAN, nor is it designed that way. To become a member, each accelerator must meet the following strict criteria:
In addition to these eight criteria, all members follow the established ethos (give before you get; put entrepreneurs first) of accelerators in GAN, including a thorough review of an accelerator’s term sheets and numerous conversations to vet accelerator founders’ intentions and operational practices. We also review their leadership and mentor pool to ensure value.
Becoming a member in the GAN is not easy, but neither is operating a quality accelerator program. Feel free to drop me an email if you want to learn more about joining GAN.
A few weeks ago I did an event with Built In Denver where I interviewed Tim Miller and Ryan Martens, the founders of Rally Software, on their journey from a startup to a public company (NYSE: RALY). As part of the event – held at Mateo in Boulder – the gang from Built In Denver announced they were rebranding as Built In Colorado.
The attendance at the event was roughly 50% Boulder entrepreneurs and 50% Denver entrepreneurs.
The past two days the Colorado Innovation Network held it’s 2nd annual COIN Summit. As part of it, Governor Hickenlooper rolled out a new brand for all of Colorado, an effort led by Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles & Co. The focus was on Colorado, not on Boulder, or Denver.
Powerful startup communities start at the neighborhood level. They then roll up to the city level. And then cities connect. Eventually it rolls up to the state level.
It’s a powerful bottom up phenomenon, not a top down situation. And inclusive of everyone. This is one of the key parts of my theory around Startup Communities.
Export the magic of the Boulder tech community to Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs by expanding New Tech Meetups, Open Coffee Clubs, and Community Office Hours to these cities.
When I look at what is happening in Denver, and the connective tissue between Boulder and Denver, I’m incredibly proud of what has been accomplished in less than two years on this front.
When I see questions on Quora like Should I start my start-up in Boulder or Denver? and then read the answers, my reaction is “poorly phrased question” and “wrong answer!” It’s not an either / or – the two cities are 30 minutes apart. They are both awesome places to start a company. It depends entirely on where you want to live – do you want a big city (Denver) or a little town (Boulder). If you choose Boulder, when you reach a certain size, you’ll end up with offices in both like Rally and SendGrid.
I’m psyched that Built in Denver is rebranding to Built in Colorado. I’m going to spend most of the week for Denver Startup Week in Denver, and CEOs and execs from most of our portfolio companies are converging on Denver in the middle of the week for a full day session together.
You’ll note that we have deliberately named things like The Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado (EFCO) with “Colorado” in their name to be inclusive of all entrepreneurs in the state. And we we do things to celebrate the startup community, like The Entrepreneur’s Prom that EFCO and Cooley are putting on September 7th at the Boulder Theatre, we focus on the entire startup community.
Innovation and entrepreneurship is off the charts right now. Let’s make sure we work together to continue building a base for the next 20 years.
VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”
Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.
Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.
“We’re raising money. I have a good intro session. Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo. We have a good 2nd meeting. We agree on action items. I go away and follow up.
Follow up again.
Radio silence still.
The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”. Then, it happened again this month.”
Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.
How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.
I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …
I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.
I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.
Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.
On Friday July 19th, I’ll be hosting Bill Aulet in Boulder to discuss his new book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Lessons To A Successful Startup.
Bill, the managing director for the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, is a close friend and amazing thinker on entrepreneurship. The book is a result of many years of his work and thinking on creating and scaling startups.
The event will take place at Rally Software in Boulder, CO from 9am – 12pm. Seating will be limited to 150 people which means you better get your tickets NOW!
Bill’s book Disciplined Entrepreneurship is currently available for pre-order, but will officially go on sale August 13th.
I hope you will join us!
Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.
This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.
Here are a few VC examples:
VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.
VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.
VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”
This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:
Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.
Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!
Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.
I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.
Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.
The phrase “work-life balance” is a vexing one. Some people think it is impossible. Others strive for it. Many entrepreneurs, and pundits about entrepreneurship, reject it as impossible. Others believe that figuring out how to balance work and life is a sign of a more enlightened entrepreneurial perspective.
In Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur Amy and I talk about many of the tactics we use to integrate work and life, which Amy loving refers to as “all the time that I’m not working.” We don’t often use the phrase work-life balance as we aren’t striving for a balance between the two, but rather an effective integration of them. I’ve been using the word “equilibrium” lately which feels different to me than the word “balance”, but I know many people will equate the two.
The challenge is that we are dealing with a very dynamic system that ebbs and flows continually. It’s early Saturday morning – I’m at the John Wayne Airport waiting for my flight home. I have an absurd amount of email backed up from the week. I’m currently on top everything in my portfolio, so I feel good about that, but I’ve got a long writing backlog. And there’s a bunch of things I’d like to explore. So I have much more work than I could possibly do this weekend, even if I spent the entire weekend working.
On the non-work front, I haven’t seen Amy (except for several times a day on Facetime) since early Tuesday morning when I left for Seattle. I miss her and Brooks the wonder dog. We have dinner with my brother, my partner Ryan, and their wives tonight. I have a 2:10 hour run on Sunday morning (I have a marathon next weekend) and a massage in the afternoon. And I want to watch last week’s episode of Scandal.
There’s no way to “balance” all that stuff or achieve any semblance of balance. But I can get to an equilibrium where I’m happy, Amy is happy, and I have fun. Sure – I’ll work some, but I’ll rest some also. I’ll spend some time by myself (mostly during my run) and I’ll get to go to bed and wake up with Amy each day. I’ll be in Boulder, a town I love, with friends who are dear to me. And I’m sure I’ll spend some time laying on the couch snuggling with my dog.
Next week will be completely different than this last week. Next weekend we are in Arkansas and I’m running a marathon. Amy will be there. Then I’ll be off to Boston for a few days. then DC, then NY. Alone again. I won’t be striving for “balance”, but I’ll roll with the ebb and flow.