I’ve started working on my next book, currently titled #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in the Era of Entrepreneurship. As a result, my brain is especially tuned to good examples that show a particular aspect of what we refer to as #GiveFirst at Techstars.
I was working at my desk the other day when Krista Marks, the CEO of Woot Math came in and said hi. We are investors and Jason is on her board. Krista and I have been close friends for over a decade and I always have time for her no matter what is going on.
She wanted to tell me a story about #GiveFirst so I stopped what I was doing, sat back in my chair, and listened. After she told me the story, I smiled and asked her if she was game for me to put it up on my blog as an example. She said yes and after she left I put a draft title in WordPress to remind me to recreate / write the story when I had some writing time.
Later that day, Krista sent me the full story, which follows, in an email. While the example is a simple one, it captures the essence of #GiveFirst nicely. Krista’s words follow.
A couple of weeks ago, I had just arrived in San Antonio to setup and exhibit Woot Math at a conference.
But I also desperately needed to find a conference room to use in the morning for a video presentation and live demo of Woot Math for the board of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund. The convention center didn’t have a room or WiFi I could rent in the center, but they pointed me to the Marriott across the street. The Marriott did have a conference room available for rent. Awesome! Here’s where the story should end, right? But then came the asking price: $400 for the room, $200 for WiFi, and $250 for a phone! I rejected the offer out of principle.
At this point it was after 4:00pm the day before I was scheduled to present at NSVF, and I was starting to worry.
My colleage Tom suggested, “maybe there’s a startup space that rents rooms.” We searched and found Geekdom:
No phone was listed but there was an address; with time running out, we decide to hop in the car and drive there.
When we arrive, it’s close to 5:00pm. I hurried up to the 7th floor of a new, modern office building. The door was locked, but there was a large window, and I caught someone’s eye. I explained that I’m the CEO of Woot Math, a startup in Boulder, and I need to a room to rent for an hour for an important meeting tomorrow.
I’m immediately welcomed in, and taken to Luke Owen, the COO of Geekdom. Luke asked if I’m involved in anyway with Techstars, and I’m pleased to share that I’m a mentor for the Boulder Techstars program. It turns out that Luke is one of the program managers for Techstars Startup Next in San Antonio, which runs it out of Geekdom.
After chatting and sharing lots of common, small world connections, Luke took me a cool conference room with high-ceilings and a large window. I’m told that it is mine for the day; I’m leant his VoIP conference phone; and I’m encouraged to help myself to coffee and the kitchen.
At this point, I’m pretty overwhelmed by Luke’s warmth and generosity. I say something like, “Wow. I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” It turns out he’s working with TeachTag, an ed-tech startup helping teachers be more organized. Luke asks if he can connect me with the founders Aaron Schuenemann. Here’s the lovely introduction that Luke sent –
It makes me so happy and proud to be part of the Techstars community and it such a powerful reminder of how entrepreneurs make the world better. Every day.
I woke up feeling subdued this morning. I didn’t know why but after talking to Amy I realized that the emotional impact on me of the horror in Nice is weighing on me. Amy described her connection to it to me – she’s been physically in the same spot that the tragedy happened – and even though we are far away, something very personal hit home about the whole thing.
We are long-time friends with Fred and Joanne Wilson. After my call with Amy, I did my daily news routine, which includes a few minutes in Feedly skimming all the blogs I subscribe to and reading the ones that catch my attention. Both Fred’s and Joanne’s did today.
I read Joanne’s post from yesterday titled Pledge 1% first. It perked me up a little and made me smile, as Pledge 1% is the evolution of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado which I co-founded in 2007. My partner Seth Levine took the lead a few years in and, with a few other people including Ryan Martens, the co-founder of Rally Software, have evolved our model into a national one. It makes me very happy to see it expanding to NYC in a significant way with Joanne supporting it. If you are in NYC and interested in learning more, attend the Pledge 1% Happy Hour on July 27th.
I then ended up on Fred’s blog. He wrote What Do You Do? What Do You Say? about Nice. In many of the recent attacks and violent situations I’ve felt emotional kinship to Fred. He’s written about things right away in words that are heartfelt and reflect my emotions. I’ve commented on the posts, supported the charities Fred has pointed out, such as the Fund for Nice, and occasionally written a post pointing at them. But I’ve definitely been more reserved about my emotions as it takes me at least a day or two to process them, and at that point the world has often moved on from the immediate aftermath of whatever happened.
Today I didn’t feel like waiting. Amy and I have a quiet weekend together and plan to have dinner with my parents and aunt Cindy/uncle Charlie on Saturday and then brunch with David and Jill Cohen on Sunday. These are all people we love deeply and we get to be with them in a very safe and comfortable context. I’m going for two long runs, will spend time finishing up the third edition of Venture Deals, and just being with my beloved.
Against the backdrop of this, the Nice events are extremely unsettling. Fred ended his post with a powerful introspection / call to action:
There is an epidemic in the world, a sickness that is spreading and afflicting more and more people. It is mental illness. We need to diagnose its cause and treat it. Until we do that, we will be facing more of these mornings. I think many of us are wondering what we can do to help with that. I certainly am.
I hear entrepreneurs use the word disruption on a daily basis and continuously hear the cliche change the world. In entrepreneurial circles, it’s clear to me that violence, hatred, and discrimination or whatever you want to label it is another category where we need to pay attention to disruption before it changes the world in ways we don’t want it to. Or that we need to change the world away from the themes that are starting to appear on a very regular basis. I don’t have answers, but I know I’ll have reflections this weekend.
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?
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.”
I recently did a 10 minute video interview with Clint Bowers of VOLSTA. I like to do about one a month with someone I’ve never heard of before for two reasons: (1) to help them out with their content / business and (2) to learn from the questions that are on their mind and the words that come out of their mouth. I never prepare or look at the questions in advance – it’s all extemporaneous.
I always watch them after they come out, not for ego-gratification reasons (I have much more efficient ways to gratify my ego) but because I’m always trying to learn from what I said, especially if the questions came from a new and interesting direction.
I particularly liked the Clint’s interview. We covered the most important lesson I’ve learned in business, my biggest failure, perspective on my #GiveFirst mantra, and the importance of knowing yourself.
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.
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.
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.