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:
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.