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.
Since today is the first day of the new Techstars Boulder program, I figured that it’s time to get rolling Deconstructing The Techstars Mentor Manifesto.
My goal with this series of posts is not to get the detail right, but to flesh things out and get your feedback. So please comment on anything and challenge everything to help me get it better.
First up (of the 18 items) is “Be Socratic.”
If you think “be socratic” means “ask questions”, you are partially correct. When David Cohen was crafting the mentor manifesto, it was obvious to start with “be socratic” since such a key part of the Techstars mentor process is to ask questions. But it’s not just the act of asking questions, it’s how you ask questions, what you try to accomplish with the questions, and what your responses to the answers are.
The “how” is important. As a mentor, it’s easy to establish a 1-up / 1-down relationship with the entrepreneurs you are talking to. In most cases, you start that way, especially with first time entrepreneurs. However, your goal should be to create a peer relationship, where the mentee learns from the mentor and the mentor learns from the mentee. As a result, tone matters. A lot.
The cliche “there are no stupid questions” applies. Body language matters. If you – as the mentor – don’t understand something, ask a question. You don’t have to show the mentee that you are smarter than her. You don’t have to establish your credibility – you already have it.
While one of your goals with these questions is to learn more about the company and the problem you are exploring, recognize that if your engagement with the mentee is a one-way Q&A session with no clear goal, your mentee will only be getting part of the value out of the experience. Use your questions to guide the discussion, presumably toward testing hypotheses you might be developing in real time. Be explicit about these hypotheses as you are testing them and try to show your thought process through the questioning. This can be subtle, where you just guide things along, or it can be explicit, where you state your hypothesis and then start asking questions.
Your goal should not be to come up with the answer and state it, but rather to help the mentee reach the answer or a set of new hypotheses she can test. This is a collaborative process, especially if you are trying to develop a peer relationship. It won’t happen comfortably in your first interaction, but after a lot of time together you’ll find you are learning from each other during the process and reaching a better set of answers, or at least new hypotheses to test.
In the same way that how you ask the question matters, how you respond to the answers matters just as much. The corollary to “there are no stupid questions” is “there are no stupid answers” and it’s just as important to realize that. For most people, answering questions in real time, especially when you are getting them from lots of different directions (as in multiple mentors over a short period of time) can be intimidating. When a person hasn’t thought deeply about the answer to a question, or hears a new question for the first time, the answer often doesn’t really address the question.
When this happens, just ask “Why?” If you’ve never heard of 5 Whys it’s one of the most brilliant things I ever learned about getting to the root cause of any issue. The example in Wikipedia is wonderful, since it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
What matters here is the root cause. And that’s what you are trying to get to with your questions. So don’t dismiss the first answer – keep digging. And use the third answer to set up a few hypotheses because at this point you are actually getting into the meat of the discussion.
The goal is not to end up with the definitive answer to the questions. Rather, you are trying to use the questions to set up a new set of hypotheses to go test. You are at the beginning of a long arc of inquisition – use being socratic as a continuous process to try to find answers.
Last night we had the Techstars Boulder Mentor Kickoff dinner. It’s an annual tradition at Techstars – we have a dinner for all mentors before we start the program. It’s a meet and greet for all mentors in the upcoming program, a great way to reconnect with friends, an intro to the companies in the upcoming program, and a reminder (and celebration) of the role of a mentor in Techstars.
Nicole Glaros, the Techstars Boulder managing director, held a great kickoff event at the Bohemian Biergarten. I ate too much Spätzle (man – that stuff has a lot of calories in it) but otherwise had an awesome time. I was especially gratified to see a number of new mentors for this year’s program. One of our goals with Techstars is to continuously expand the network, and bringing in and engaging new mentors in each program is a key part of that.
Given the new mentors, Nicole spent a few minutes going through the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. It reminded me of the importance of clearly defining what a mentor is and how a mentor can optimally interact with a startup, especially a very early stage one or one consisting of first time entrepreneurs.
Over the next six weeks I’m going to write 18 posts – going much deeper on each of the 18 items on the mentor manifesto. When we started Techstars, the word “mentor” was rarely used, typically referred to a single “mentor” that person had, and often connoted a very one-up / one-down type of “guidance relationship.” For those of you in legal or investment banking professions, the equivalent word was often “rabbi” – it was someone who looked after you, covered your ass, gave you advice, and helped you on your career.
We meant “mentor” in a different way. We’ve learned an enormous amount about what does and doesn’t work. What’s helpful or harmful. And how a mentor can get the most out of their side of the relationship. Today, it’s trendy to be a “mentor” especially to a startup. Unlike before, when mentor meant something very precise and narrow, it now is referred to a wide range of relationships and interactions.
Hopefully the next 18 posts, and the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, will help make the definition of mentors and the implementation of mentorship, at least in the context of high growth startups, precise in a new and ever more powerful way.
I saw a great job title this morning when I was looking someone up on LinkedIn. It was “CTO Whisperer.”
As I’m getting deeper into meditation. I hear the word “teacher” a lot. I’d never thought much about it before, but it’s used in a similar way to how we use the word “mentor” at Techstars. When we started to use the word mentor in 2007, it required defining. Now mentor is getting overused by the broad entrepreneurial landscape. I have no idea whether teacher is overused as well, but the parallel got me thinking about the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of The Horse Whisperer or a Dog Whisperer. A person who has a special, magic skill that certain animals respond to. A unique ability to calm and teach. A style about them that is unique, loving, and kind, even in difficult circumstances.
As I was mulling this over, my friend Jerry Colonna popped into my mind. While Jerry is referred to as a CEO coach, he most certainly is a CEO Whisperer. And for those who don’t know Jerry’s past, he was an extremely successful venture capitalist, founding Flatiron Partners with Fred Wilson in the mid-1990s before retiring from venture capital in the early 2000’s.
I count Jerry as a very close friend. As a mentor. As a teacher. And, with all great mentor / teacher relationships, we learn from each other. Which led me back to the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
In the 1990’s, Jerry and I worked together on several investments and were on a few boards together. Our styles were very complementary – we both had a soft touch and were supportive of the CEO, but had different things we could help with. I know that my involvement on these boards deeply shaped my role and approach as a board member and investor, as I thought Jerry was the best board member I’d ever worked with at that point in time.
I’ve met – and worked with – a few other people who I’d consider CEO Whisperers, but none compare to Jerry. And when I think about how I want to be viewed by the CEOs I work with, the idea of mentor and teacher immediately comes to the forefront of my mind.
The world of entrepreneurship needs more CEO Whisperers. Thanks Jerry for leading the way. On multiple fronts.
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.