On my run this morning, my mind drifted to a common characteristic of CEOs that I work with. It was prompted by me randomly thinking about two back to back meetings I had yesterday – the first with Eric Schweikardt (Modular Robotics CEO) and his VP Finance and then with John Underkoffler (Oblong CEO) and his leadership team.
I’m regularly blown away by these two guys ability to collect new information, process it, and learn from it. Any meeting with them is not an endless socratic session from me to them, but rather the other way around. They know what they are trying to figure out and use me, and my broad range of experience, data, and opinions, to solicit a bunch of data for themselves that they use as inputs into their learning machine. Sure – I ask plenty of questions, but they do also, and as we go deeper, the questions – and the things that come out – get richer.
So – as I turned around on my run and headed back home (today was an out and back run), I started thinking about other learning machines that I get to work with. The ultimate is David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars. The entire model of Techstars is build around the context of the entrepreneur as a learning – and teaching – machine, where learning and teaching (which we call “mentoring”) are the different sides of the same coin.
Bart Lorang (FullContact CEO) is an awesome learning machine. While Bart isn’t a first time CEO, his level – and intensity – of inquiry is stunning. It reminds me of a younger Matt Blumberg, who has taken the concept to an entirely new level in his book Startup CEO.
I could keep going – almost of the CEOs I work with are in this category of learning machine. As I rounded the last turn and headed for home, I realized the learning machine model is consistent with a deeply held value of mine – reading and writing. More about that in another post.
I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
Fred Wilson had a post yesterday titled Mentor/Investor Whiplash. His recommendations for dealing with it can be summarized as “collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.”
I then read through the comments on the post and was bummed out. Many missed the point of what I thought Fred was trying to say. Then I reread the post more carefully and noticed how he framed the issue. The paragraph that caught my attention was:
I call this constant advising/mentoring of early stage startups “mentor/investor whiplash” and I think it is a big problem. Not just with the accelerator programs but across the early stage/seed startup landscape.
I bolded “I think it is a big problem” – that clearly set the tone for the comments.
I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.
At Techstars, we view mentor whiplash as a positive attribute. We talk about it openly – all the time. I believe that if you ask five mentors the same question you’ll get seven different answers. This is especially true early in any relationship, when the mentors are just getting to know you and your company.
That’s good. That’s how business works. As an entrepreneur you get an endless stream of conflicting data on every issue. Your job is to sort the signal from the noise. Tools like Lean Launchpad and the concept of Lean Startup can help early on, but in some cases they’ll just collect more conflicting data, or validate (or invalidate) a particular hypothesis.
As the business grows, there are more points of stimuli, more agendas, more exogenous factors, and more potential whiplash. If you don’t build your own muscle around collecting, synthesizing, dealing with, and decided what to do with all the data that is coming at you, then you are going to have massive problems as your company scales up. So learning how to do this early on your journey is very powerful.
I view the accelerator environment, at least what we are creating at Techstars, to be an example of a safe environment. It’s an artificial construct that includes a massive amplification of stimuli and data over a short period of time (90 days) from people who – as mentors – should have the ultimate goal of being helpful to you. Now, every mentor – and investor – who you interact with – has their own emotional and intellectual construct of what they are doing and how they are interacting with you. That’s another layer of the positive impact – you have guides (your lead mentors, the people running the accelerator) who can help you decode the feedback. Your peers are interacting with the same mentors – often on the same day – and a short conversation with some of them can help you calibrate quickly.
Now apply Fred’s points (per my summary):
Collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.
At Techstars, we repeat over and over again the following mantra to the entrepreneurs going through the accelerator.
It’s just data. It’s your company.
If you are in an accelerator, don’t be afraid of mentor whiplash. Don’t view it as a negative. Embrace it. Build muscle around it. Learn to process it. Filter out the noise. Run experiments on the stuff that seems valid to confirm or deny it. Make your own decisions!
At TechStars, we talk often about “mentor whiplash” – the thing that happens when you get seemingly conflicting advice from multiple mentors. Talk to five mentors; get seven different opinions! This is normal, as there is no right or absolute answer in many cases, people have different perspectives and experiences, and they are responding to different inputs (based on their own context), even if the data they are presented with looks the same on the surface.
Yesterday, Steve Blank and I both put up articles on the WSJ Accelerators site. The question for the week was “When should you have a board of directors or a board of advisors?” My answer was Start Building Your Board Early. Steve’s was Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats. I just went back and read each of them. On the surface they seem to be opposite views. But upon reading them carefully, I think they are both right, and a great example of mentor whiplash.
For context, I have enormous respect for Steve and I learn a lot from him. We are on the UP Global board together but have never served on a for-profit board together. We both started out as entrepreneurs and have spent a lot of time participating in, learning about, and teaching how to create and scale startups. I’ve been on lots of boards – ranging from great to shitty; I expect Steve has as well. While we haven’t spent a lot of physical time together, all of our virtual time has been stimulating to me, even when we disagree (which is possibly unsettling but hopefully entertaining to those observing.) And while we are both very busy in our separate universes, my sense is they overlap nicely and probably converge in some galaxy far far away.
So – when you read Steve’s article and hear “Steve says don’t add a board member until after you raise a VC round” and then read my article and conclude “Brad says add a board member before you raise a VC round” it’s easy to say “wow – ok – that sort of – well – doesn’t really help – I guess I have to pick sides.” You can line up paragraphs and have an amusing “but Brad said, but Steve said” kind of thing. I considered making a Madlib out of this, but had too many other things to do this morning.
But if you go one level deeper, we are both saying “be careful with who you add to your board.” I’m taking a positive view – assuming that you are doing this – and adding someone you trust and has a philosophy of helping support the entrepreneur. From my perspective:
“… Early stage board of directors should be focused on being an extension of the team, helping the entrepreneurs get out of the gate, and get the business up and running. Often, entrepreneurs don’t build a board until they are forced to by their VCs when they raise their first financing round. This is dumb, as you are missing the opportunity to add at least one person to the team who — as a board member — can help you navigate the early process of building your company and raising that first round. In some cases, this can be transformative.”
Steve takes the opposite view – concerned that anyone who wants to be on an early stage board is resume padding, potentially a control freak, or the enemy of the founders.
“At the end of the day, your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners. That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”
Totally valid. And it reinforces the point we both are making, which Maynard Webb makes more clearly in his Accelerator post ‘Date’ Advisers, ‘Marry’ Board Members. When I reflect on my post, I didn’t state this very well. Anytime you add an outside board member, you should be reaching high and adding someone you think will really be helpful. You are not looking for a “boss” or someone who is going to hide behind their abstract fiduciary responsibilities to all shareholders (which they probably don’t actually understand) – you are looking for an early teammate who is going to help you win. Sure – there will be cases where they have to consider their fiduciary responsibilities, but their perspective should be that of helping support the entrepreneurs in whatever way the entrepreneurs need.
The power of a great entrepreneur is to collect a lot of data and make a decision based on their own point of view and conviction. You’ve got a lot of info – including some different perspectives from the WSJ Accelerators segment this week. That’s their goal – now I encourage you to read the articles carefully, think about what you want your board to be like, and take action on it.
On November 9th, I’ll be helping launch Startup Colorado. We’ll be having a kickoff event at CU Boulder from 6:30pm – 8:35pm.
Startup Colorado will be one of the regional initiatives under the umbrella of the Startup America Partnership. Startup Colorado is an initiative to make a meaningful impact on entrepreneurship and new company creation in the Front Range. We want to expand the breadth and depth of entrepreneurial networks from Fort Collins to Boulder to Denver to Colorado Springs and lower barriers for people who want to build high-growth businesses.
At the launch event, our agenda will include talking specifically about what our plans and goals are for 2012. We’ll be operating under my first principle of entrepreneurial communities – that an entrepreneurial community must be lead by entrepreneurs. We have a panel discussing what has happened in Boulder over the past decade and one about the power of mentorship.
If you are an entrepreneur in Colorado, we’d love to have you join us. Please register at the Silicon Flatirons site. The event will be at the Wittemyer Courtroom, Wolf Law Building, University of Colorado on Wednesday, November 9, 2011; 6:30 – 8:35 PM.
Are you building a cloud startup? If so, apply to TechStars Cloud today!
Earlier this month TechStars announced its newest accelerator program, TechStars Cloud, and we are looking for the best cloud startups we can find to go through the inaugural program.
We’ve gotten a lot of questions about what constitutes a “cloud startup”, so here is a discussion of what we think are cloud startups. We think we can do something special with this program and have big expectations for the results we’ll see when we connect early stage cloud startups to the best cloud mentors and companies.
If you haven’t heard, we have upped the initial funding in the program to 118k.
When David Cohen and I first talked about TechStars in 2006, the concept of a “mentor” was front and center. Early on, we defined TechStars as a “mentorship-driven seed stage investment program” and have held deeply to that concept from the beginning. Today, the vast majority of accelerators use a mentorship model, which is something we are really proud of and thinks serves entrepreneurs everywhere extremely well.
When I was in Cambridge, England at the end of July for the Springboard Demo Day, Jon Bradford (the Springboard Managing Director) talked elloquently about how mentorship was a key part of the program. Springboard is a member of the TechStars Network and subsequently uses the same mentorship model that TechStars uses. During the day I got to meet a bunch of Springboard mentors – they were superb and also incredibly enthusiastic about the Springboard program that Jon had created. Jon then took me for a meeting at 10 Downing Street and on the way suggested that David and I write up a “Mentor Manifesto.” I thought it was a great idea, suggested it to David, who published his Mentor Manifesto yesterday. It follows:
- Be socratic.
- Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back).
- Be authentic / practice what you preach.
- Be direct. Tell the truth, however hard.
- Listen too.
- The best mentor relationships eventually become two-way.
- Be responsive.
- Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.
- Clearly separate opinion from fact.
- Hold information in confidence.
- Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.
- Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado.
- Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.
- Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved.
- Be optimistic.
- Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague.
- Be challenging/robust but never destructive.
- Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard.
If you’ve read Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons To Accelerate Your Startup, you’ll recognize many of these. David’s added a few more concepts and synthesized / evolved a few. In typical TechStars fashion, view this as an evolving manifesto – comments are welcome (and encouraged!)