Behind the stories of most first-time venture-backed CEOs building startups and attacking markets at breakneck speed, there is usually a tight network of mentors and peers showing them the ropes of company building. That’s certainly been my experience at Pantheon—we likely would not exist if not for the crucial help of James Lindenbaum, Adam Gross, Steve Anderson, Ryan McIntyre, Brad Feld, and all of the advisors who have assisted us on our journey.
However, I’ve found there is a hard limit to how much you can learn about building a company from speaking with advisors. Before deciding on how to go about building your company, it is critical to build an understanding of other companies’ paths to success and learning from their mistakes along the way. I’ve found to really do that, often times you need to be there—out of your own office and physically present in theirs—to see with your own eyes how a company actually works.
That is the goal of CEO shadowing: to put you in the shoes of another CEO, let you observe, ask questions, and form a rich and detailed mental model of how another company operates. I’ve done it twice so far, and both times have learned more in a day of shadowing than I do in months of working sessions with mentors and peers.
My first time CEO Shadowing: Jud at Gnip in 2012
The first CEO I shadowed was Jud, who then ran Gnip which has since been acquired by Twitter. Foundry Group is a mutual investor of ours, and Jud and I met at an event in Boulder that they organized for portfolio CEOs.
In Boulder I ran around asking a number of CEOs and Foundry Partners for company management advice—how to run one-on-ones, structure executive meetings, manage my board, etc. Three times in row an answer to my question was prefaced by:
“You should really ask Jud this question because they just did this at Gnip and did a fabulous job.”
We were a 20-person company at the time, and Gnip had hit its stride and was growing very quickly. They were 50, soon to be 100—about a year and a half ahead of us in terms of scale. Gnip was known for being a very well-run company.
I cornered Jud at the event and soaked up as much data from him as I could. Then I went home, and realized how much more I really needed to learn from him and Gnip. The only way I thought I could really get answers to my questions was to go to Gnip and observe how Jud and his team ran the company.
So I sent this email:
“Can I fly to Boulder and shadow you for a day, and be a fly on the wall in yours and your team’s meetings?”
This was his response a couple of hours later:
“Fun! You bet! Only question is timing. Thoughts?”
Jud invited me to attend his management meetings and let me interview anyone on his entire team at will. In one day on-site I was a part of his exec kick-off meeting, attended a company product strategy meeting, and interviewed two executives, two engineers, and individuals from their sales and marketing team. I took notes, asked questions, and tried to fit in. I approached it like a journalist whose goal it was to write a profile on how Gnip, the company, worked.
I found the Gnip team to be incredibly focused and busy—while still gracious, helpful, and happy to talk at the same time.
What I learned
At the time I shadowed Jud, Pantheon had a very early executive team and not much in terms of process or structure. We operated on tribal knowledge and had the benefit that everyone implicitly knew what the others were doing. We knew we needed to build our team and create more structure, but how were we going to do that without screwing up what was working so naturally?
What I learned at Gnip was:
1) It was absolutely possible to build a 100-person company that operated as efficiently, or even more efficiently, than our 20-person company.
2) Process and structure could be additive to company culture, because it forces you to get specific about implicit assumptions that are so important to a company’s future (values, strategy, management philosophy, etc.)
3) There is good management and bad management, and you need effective leadership and stiff penalties when you fail to lead. It was up to us to build the company right. Gnip was built right, and it worked.
On top of that, I learned many, many small tactical things—from how to structure the agenda of an executive meeting, to how to arrange teams and desks, to optimizing how the people worked together.
But the tactics were built on the big learnings, which were important for this reason: seeing how Gnip worked gave me confidence to trust my gut in building my company. To be clear, Pantheon is built very differently from Gnip. Many of the things that worked for them won’t work for us—we picked our own path. But there are so many internal obstacles to building structure in a startup as it undergoes massive change, and to know that it could work because I saw it work enabled to me to keep my head down and keep working towards my goal without getting blown off course.
Visiting Gnip in 2012 was like visiting the hopeful, successful, parallel future to Pantheon. It was like getting to travel to a foreign, and more advanced planet, and then getting to return and apply what I learned.
Want to do this? Here are my suggestions for how to get the most out of CEO shadowing:
- Find a CEO at a company that is approximately 1-2 years ahead of yours (if you are $1M ARR, then $5-10M; if you are $10M, then $30-$60M). Ideally this is a CEO you admire, and one you already have a relationship with.
- Confidentiality is incredibly important. You should probably sign an NDA.
- Book a full day in the office with the CEO. I highly recommend visiting the day the CEO does the most “management” in a workweek—when executive meetings, planning, strategy, etc are scheduled.
- Get yourself invited to everything. Everywhere the CEO goes, you go. This requires the CEO to warn their company ahead of time and get the OK of their execs and team members.
- Spend half of your time observing in meetings, and half in one-on-ones with their team.
- Meet one-on-one with execs, managers, and individual contributors, ideally from numerous different teams.
- Ahead of time, prepare a list of questions with the CEO that you can ask of their team members, or research topics you can report back on that CEO wants to know (while respecting anonymity). Example questions:
- “What do the values of this company?”
- “What are the company priorities? Your team’s priorities? Your priorities?”
- “What did this company get right that has enabled it to succeed?”
- Take copious notes during all meetings and interactions. Anonymize feedback and send a full report of what you learned back to the CEO (this can be partial repayment for letting you shadow them).
- Keep asking questions and observing until you feel like you could give a valuable five-minute presentation on “how the company works” to your team and the CEO you are shadowing.
Asking to shadow a CEO of a company is a big ask. It’s out of the norm, and it takes time from their team. You can repay some of that by offering to share useful observation or doing outside research as part of your time there, but at the end of the day this may be the ultimate “pay it forward” generous act the startup community is willing to take on for fellow CEOs.
Investors: I believe this could be one of the most valuable things you could help facilitate for your portfolio company CEOs. If anyone else has shadowed a CEO, I’d love to hear how you approached it and how well it worked for you.
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.
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.
As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.
Item 5 is “Listen Too.”
Pause and ponder for a minute.
Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.
There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.
In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.
The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.
Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.
But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.
Today’s installment of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is #4: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard.
Let’s start with “Be Direct.”
At some intellectual level, being direct is easy. You just say what is on your mind. You say it in a declarative way. You lead with it and support it with either experience or examples.
But humans have a very difficult time being direct. Many of us can’t get to the point. We thrive on inductive reasoning. We are passive aggressive in our behavior. This is especially the case when we don’t know the answer to something or when we are uncomfortable with the truth.
Reflect for a moment on how you answer a question when you don’t know the answer. Do you use the magic and wonderful phrase “I don’t know.” Or do you skirt around the question, searching for an answer that is somewhat relevant, while reframing the question more to your liking. Or do you just spew out whatever comes to mind, extrapolating truth from one data point you have lurking in your brain somewhere?
Don’t do this. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. But if you know, be direct.
You might think this contradicts Mentor Manifesto #1: Be Socratic. Remember that “be socratic” doesn’t just mean “ask questions”, it’s all about asking questions to get at the why of something. They key is that when you get at the why, and really get at it, then flip into being direct.
Now, consider the concept “Tell The Truth, However Hard.”
At 48, I’m no longer able, or willing, to lie. As a kid, I’d stretch the truth to exaggerate my own self-importance or the perceived excitement of a story. I did a few things I was ashamed of and lied to cover up and avoid exposing what I’d done. But whenever I got caught in a lie, which was most of the time, I felt badly about myself. My parents handled this really well. Rather than punishing me, they would talk about the deceit and make me face it. They were calm but direct and unyielding. At some point I realized dealing with the ramification of getting caught in a lie was much worse than telling the truth in the first place. I owe it to my parents for instilling this value in me.
By college I don’t think I lied very often. I still exaggerated the truth, but never purposefully lied. The next person to whack me over the head about this was my first business partner, Dave Jilk. At Feld Technologies, I was the primary salesman although Dave sold plenty of business over the years, especially with existing customers. I often made Dave frustrated with two behaviors. The first was when I oversold something and we ended up starting a new client relationship with expectations that were far out of line with what we could deliver. The other was when I was selling Dave on my position, trying to convince him of something by stretching the truth, exaggerating the wonderfulness of the outcome, or, in some cases, just trying to push through with the force of my personality, regardless of the reality of the situation. Dave would regularly challenge and push back on me, which eventually helped me realize that overselling, exaggerating, and overstating the situation ultimately lowered my credibility.
The killing blow for me on lying was when my first wife had a year long affair. The level of deceit in that dynamic, including between the two of us in our inability to be direct with each other about how we felt and what was going on, along with the corresponding emotional fallout for me, was overwhelming. I made an internal commitment to myself to never do that to someone else, regardless of the situation.
I proceeded to get involved in a relationship with a person I’d describe as a “truth teller” or a “fair witness” (for those of you who are fans of Stranger in a Strange Land.) Amy is incapable of not telling the truth, no matter how difficult, and after 23 years of being together, that has become deeply ingrained in my value system.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. I make a lot of them. All the time. And when I do, and I realize it, I own it. Which is another version of telling the truth. It’s easy, especially as a mentor, to gloss over the fact that you made a mistake. But it’s much more powerful to the mentee when you own your mistakes and correct them.
Linking together the ideas of “being direct” and “telling the truth” is very powerful. You end up holding yourself up to a high standard of behavior and communication. And you set an example for those you mentor, just like I learned from my parents, Dave, and Amy.
In today’s installation of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, we deconstruct #3: Be Authentic – Practice What You Preach.
Authenticity has once again become a trendy word. When I started blogging in 2004, it was all about transparency. Fred Wilson led the way and I happily followed. And if you want to really understand transparency, look at Rand Fishkin’s epic post on Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing in 2012. Now that’s transparency.
Today, it’s all about authenticity. I’ve always been amused when someone says “I’m authentic” or “I’m transparent” or “I’m entrepreneur friendly” or “I’m a value-added investor.” Whenever I hear that, I automatically insert the word “not” in between “I’m” and the rest of the phrase.
It’s not about stating that you are authentic. It’s about practicing what you preach, all the time, and in every way. Sure – you will make mistakes, but when you do you need to own them, apologize, correct things, and move forward.
As a mentor, this is especially important. The entrepreneurs you are mentoring look up to you. They immediately vest responsibility in you as a mentor. Authenticity in your behavior is key to maintaining this relationship, which you get by default.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’m doing this as a favor to the entrepreneur so they have to put up with me.” Wrong. You are setting an example for the entrepreneur. They are watching your every move. In some ways, the pressure is even higher on you as a mentor since your behavior is going to rub off on your mentees.
This comes up in all contexts. It can be as simple as being on time. If you emphasize to the entrepreneur the importance of shipping on time, but then are consistently 15 minutes late to meetings, that’s not particularly authentic. It can be around content. If you stress the importance of a personal voice on the company blog, but then have a marketing team handle your own content for your VC firm, that’s not particularly authentic. If you have a public persona of being calm and constructive, but then throw temper tantrums to get the attention of your mentees, how do you think that’ll impact them.
Now, you’ll be late. You’ll have infrastructure the entrepreneur doesn’t. And you’ll get frustrated and lose your temper sometimes. But when you do, own it, and apologize. Let the entrepreneur know when you are inconsistent in your behavior. When they realize it’s ok to screw up, as long as you recognize it, they’ll understand the power of truly being authentic.
Focus on the phrase “practice what you preach.” That’s the core of authenticity in a mentor / mentee relationship. You are preaching regularly as a mentor. Do your words match your actions?
The second element of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back). It’s extraordinarily simple while being profoundly hard.
It’s simple because it’s easy to say “I’m doing this without any expectations.” That felt good, right? You are going to be a good mentor, helping another up and coming entrepreneur, and it’ll be good karma. It’s good marketing – who doesn’t like people to say things about him like “Joe is such a good guy – he helped me without expecting anything back.” Simple, right?
It’s profoundly hard because this just isn’t human nature, especially in a business context. We live in a transactional world, constantly deciding where to invest our time to get the best ROI – there’s even a phrase for that which is “return on invested time.” We worry about things like reputational effects, being cautious of spending too much time with low impact activities or unknown people, while being drawn to the spotlight and well-known people, even if the activities are hollow and lack substance or value. We feel overwhelmed with the base level of work we have and struggle to justify spending time on activities with an unknown impact on what is directly in front of us. We prioritize how we spend our time, gravitating towards things where we can see the payoff.
I have two constructs I use that have broken this cycle for me which are at the core at being an awesome mentor: Give Before You Get and Random Days.
Give Before You Get is a cousin to a concept many of us are familiar with called “pay it forward.” With pay it forward, someone once did something for you to help you with your life or your career and you are now helping someone else out to “pay it forward” as compensation for this previous support. While nice, it’s still a transaction concept, which is where give before you get differs. In give before you get, you enter into a relationship without defining anything transactional – you “give” in whatever form is appropriate, but you have no idea what you are going to “get” back. Now, this isn’t altruism – you will get something back – you just don’t know when, from who, in what currency, or in what magnitude. You enter into the relationship non-transactionally and are willing to continue giving without a defined transactional return.
This is at the core of my Startup Communities thesis. To truly activate a startup community you have to get everyone in the startup community putting energy into the community, essentially giving before they get. If you create this culture, magical things happen very quickly as an enormous amount of kinetic energy goes into the startup community, generating rapid activity, results, and powerful second order effects.
In the construct of give before you get, it’s important to remember this isn’t altruism, which is why I’m repeating that notion. You will get something back, you just don’t have any expectations around what it will be. That’s unnatural for humans, and is the fundamental difference between a mentor and and an advisor. An advisor says “I’ll help you if you give me a $3,000 / month retainer and 1% of your company.” A mentor says simply, “How can I help?”
Random Days is one way to practice being a great mentor and giving before you get. I started doing random days in 2005 after a long history of random 15 minute meetings – something I’ve always done, but at some point realized I couldn’t effectively squeeze them into the normal flow of my day anymore. So I started setting aside about a day a month to do a dozen or so random 15 minute meetings. Some magical things, including Techstars, have come from Random Days. The trick to an amazing random day experience is to meet with anyone (zero filter) and let the 15 minutes be entirely about them and their agenda. I typically start each meeting with “Hi, I’m Brad Feld, the next 15 minutes are about whatever you want to talk about.” That establishes that I have no expectations and I’m fully available and present for the person I’m meeting with.
In a busy world with constant performance pressure and expectations around outcomes, the concept of give before you get and the idea of having a periodic random day may seem ridiculous. If you are thinking “that sounds nice and utopian, but I don’t have time for that” or “yeah Brad, whatever, but you are in a different position in life than I am”, I challenge you to rethink your position. I’ve been doing this since my first company in my early 20s. I’ve built the notion of give before you get into the core of my value system. I’ve allowed myself to continually be open to randomness and many of the incredible things I’ve gotten to be involved in have come from one of these random interactions. Most importantly, I continually am amazed by what comes back to me, over and over again, from people I’ve put energy, time, and resources into without any expectation of a return. The payoff, financial and non-financial, has been profound for me.
So try it. Don’t shift to a 100% give before you get mentality, but allocate 10% of your time to it. Find ways to give before you get. And if you are a mentor for an accelerator, a younger person, a peer, or someone in your organization, make sure you internalize the idea of giving before you get and expecting nothing in return. You’ll be delighted with what you do get back.