In March, YPO and Techstars launched a partnership to support high-growth entrepreneurship and innovation. As a kickoff to that, Techstars co-sponsored YPO Innovation Week.
I did a one hour interview with Kate Rogers from CNBC last Friday. It was a fun interview for me and I felt like we covered a lot of good stuff.
Steve Case kicked off YPO Innovation Week with an interview, also with Kate Rogers. I listened to it in advance of my interview and thought it was extremely well done.
There’s a tenuous balance between telling someone what to do and giving advice. It’s especially difficult as a mentor, especially if you’ve previously been a CEO and are used to being “the decider.”
As a mentor, you aren’t the decider. The CEO you are mentoring is the decider.
This dynamic is also true for many board / CEO relationships, where the board wants the CEO to make the ultimate decision. As I’ve often said, my goal as a VC is only to make one decision about a company – whether or not I support the CEO. If I do, I work for the CEO. If I don’t, it’s my job to do something about the CEO.
While this is nice in theory, it’s difficult in practice. One of my strengths is that I tell a lot of stories. One of my weaknesses is that, according to my wife Amy, my stories go on 20% too long (she is correct.) Here’s an example.
I’m at a board meeting. The CEO, which I love working with, is trying to figure out what to do about a particularly thorny issue. I tell a story. He reacts with a little more data. I tell another story. Another board member asks a question. I tell another story. This one goes on a bit too long.
The CEO looks directly at me and says, very firmly, “Will you just tell me the fucking answer for once?”
I tell him the answer.
He was looking for specific, actionable advice. I was telling him stories. If he spent enough time processing the stories, he might be able to come up with the right answer. Or, since they are stories, he might draw the wrong inference and decide to do something different from where the stories were leading him. This CEO was aware of that and, in real time was having trouble processing the point of the stories in his context.
Fortunately, this CEO was self-aware enough to ask for specific, actionable advice in a moment where he needed it.
The Venture Deals Online Course for this spring starts this Sunday May 14, 2017 and runs through July 3, 2017. The Kauffman Fellows Academy and Techstars are co-hosting the course. It’s free – all you need to do is sign up.
This is the fifth time we are running the course. So far more than 5,000 people around the globe have done it and we’ve gotten to meet and collaborate with entrepreneurs from six continents.
While our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist is the basis for the course, we have extensive exercises, additional content, and a highly engaged community to answer questions. Jason and I make regular visits, both in the online discussion sections as well as periodic AMAs. In addition, the team from Techstars is also engaging throughout the program.
If you are interested in entrepreneurship and how startup deals work, here’s a great chance to go deep on this with me, Jason, Kauffman Fellows, and Techstars.
I’m super lucky. I get to work with many incredibly brave and insightful people. One of them is Chris Heivly who is now working at Techstars with me and a few others on a new set of products around the concept of startup communities.
May is mental health month. Jenny Lawton, Techstars COO, led off Techstars commitment to engaging with the post Let’s End the Stigma Around Mental Health. Her call to action, before she goes on to talk about her experience with mental health issues, follows:
“May is Mental Health Awareness month and Techstars is driving to end the stigma that surrounds mental health. Let’s open up the conversation around it and what it means to our community and industry.”
Today, Chris went public with his story in the post That Time I Could Not Break My Depression. If you’ve never met Chris, he’s a gregarious, energetic, fully engaged entrepreneur who has had multiple successes. But, he has struggled with depression, as he says in the lead off of his story.
As I read his story, I was incredibly proud of him for being able to talk about it and provide leadership for others. Then I read Lance Powers (founder at Sigmend – Techstars Class 68) post The Vital Role of Community in Mental Health Support where he talks about his bipolar disorder.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a post discussing my Bipolar disorder for my friends, coworkers, and entire community to see, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to the hard work of my local community in Boulder and Denver, I am not only comfortable writing this post, I am proud.”
Lance has two statements that encapsulate what I believe.
- “The problem is less about the disorder and more about the way we handle it.”
- “The one thing I know to be absolutely true is that a supportive community is vital to recovery.”
On Saturday, Amy and I participated in the annual BCH Foundation Gala which this year was in support of the BCH Foundation Mental Health Endowment. As part of it, we announced a lead gift for the new BCH Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion which will be used primarily for behavioral and mental health issues.
While more is coming on the work Amy and I are doing with BCH, for now, I’m going to end with the simple statement. I am incredibly appreciative and proud for all the insights, support, and bravery of all my colleagues and friends, around the issues of depression and mental health in general. Thank you.
Two mentors in one of the Techstars programs were both people who I knew well. They hated each other as a result of being co-founders of companies that had been bitter rivals.
Each company was successful, but their paths ended up being very different. These two co-founders hadn’t interacted with each other, but the CEOs of each of their companies had some rough interactions. As a result, each of these co-founders thought the other was an evil person.
Each of the co-founders was technical, extremely smart, and capable. Not surprisingly, they gravitated toward mentoring the same companies.
After a few very awkward moments, I encouraged the two co-founders to let their pasts be history and to move on. I knew them each pretty well and expected they’d like each other and get along if they had an opportunity to reset things. Being mentors to the same company gave them this opportunity.
It turned out that they loved working together. At some point, the co-founders talked about their past. They had never actually met, and each realized that their emotions were a function of the hostile relationship between the CEOs. Since they were channeling these emotions, they realized this was a self-limiting perspective.
They became friends. In a few cases, they’ve been mentors for the same company. It’s been a great example of moving beyond whatever your past is and accepting each other as a mentor in a new shared context.
Last month I took two weeks completely off the grid. As part of it, I spent some time working on my next book, Give First. As part of that, I finished up the sections on Deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. While I wrote a draft of this post over a month ago, It felt appropriate to publish this, and the next few Mentor Manifesto posts, after a wave of Techstars Demo Days that just happened.
#15 is “Be Optimistic.” It sounds simple, but it can be incredibly difficult.
As a mentor, your job is not to solve a founder’s problem. It’s to help. It’s to listen. It’s to provide feedback and data from your experience.
You can do this from many different perspectives. However, given the stress on a founder, it’s best to do this from an optimistic frame of reference.
Here’s an example of the challenge. You are a mentor to Maria, who is struggling with her co-founder Stephan, who has become unpredictable, inconsistent, and subdued. Maria feels alone, both on a day to day basis as well as in dealing with Stephan (there are only two founders in this case.)
As a mentor, you had a difficult co-founder experience in your last company. While the dynamics were different, it ended poorly with your co-founder leaving the company. While you haven’t spoken since you split up, your business was successful and acquired for a life-changing sum of money for each of you.
Your co-founder struggle is one that didn’t work out between you and your co-founder but was ultimately financially rewarding for each of you. You carry around this conflict in your head. On the one hand, you are pessimistic about where things between Maria and Stephan will end up. On the other, you know that even if their relationship fails, the company can still be a success.
You also learned a lot from your experience with your co-founder. Each of you made mistakes in approaching things during your conflict period. This hurt both of you and negatively impacted the company for a while. Your struggle with each other was public, and it ruined several other relationships with people who felt like they needed to choose sides.
Being optimistic in this context is difficult. But it can be done. Start from a positive frame of reference. Talk openly with Maria about the things that you and your co-founder did wrong as you tried to address your conflict. Be clear about how things could have turned out differently. Be introspective in your discussion and speak from experience, instead of giving advice. Remember to reinforce that even though your relationship with your co-founder ended up failing, your business was successful.
Let Maria have her experience as she tries to resolve things with Stephan. Try to be a positive influence in the mix to encourage her to do the work involved, even if they end up parting ways.
Recently, Amazon’s Alexa team and Techstars launched The Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars, Last week, a bunch of fun skills have been integrated into Alexa. I thought I’d give some a try. Cooper, my intrepid two year old super alpha golden retriever shows up around a minute into the video when I do my favorite Alexa skill, the Woof Woof.
If you have an Alexa, give these a try.
What is the Alexa Accelerator?
What is a start-up accelerator?/What is a startup incubator?
How do I / can I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
Who should apply to the Alexa Accelerator?/Should I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
What is the Alexa fund?
Where will the Alexa Accelerator take place?
When are applications due for the Alexa Accelerator?/By when should I apply…
What is Techstars?/Who is Techstars?
A key ingredient of Techstars accelerator programs is our experienced and engaged mentor community. Mentors embrace the Techstars “Give First” philosophy by offering founders their time, advice, and connections. We treat mentorship seriously – you can read about it in our Mentor Manifesto and my blog series on the mentor manifesto. And, my book Give First, coming out at the end of 2017, will cover mentorship in depth.
Our global network now consists of over 5,000 mentors, including many successful Techstars alumni. As Techstars continues to selectively expand into new geographies and industry verticals, our mentors are important as ever.
Serving as a mentor is intrinsically rewarding on multiple levels. Guiding founders through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship creates a deep sense of contribution. It provides an outlet for mentors to engage in their local startup communities and keep a pulse on emerging technologies. It’s a chance to learn by teaching, and engage with a new generation of entrepreneurs. And it’s fun.
Beyond the intrinsic rewards, Techstars has been considering creative ways to recognize our mentors while deepening their relationships with founders. Today we’re happy to announce a new partnership with AngelList to offer Techstars mentors and alumni an exclusive opportunity to invest early in accelerator companies. Our first two pilot funds will be the 2017 city programs in Austin and Boston, launching on January 23rd. The AngelList funds will give mentors and alumni early investment access while providing companies with additional early stage capital.
At Foundry Group, we learned a lot by running our own FG Angels syndicate. AngelList syndicates helps enable seed stage investing at scale. We believe in the model and its power to further enhance the Techstars network.
If you are a Techstars mentor or alumni founder and would like to learn more about the Techstars AngelList funds, or an experienced entrepreneur or tech executive interested in becoming a Techstars mentor, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I love Alexa. Of all the various tech things I’ve bought in 2016, Amazon’s Alexa has become the most consistently used new thing in my world. I’ve even had a breakthrough on the home front as Amy now regularly says “Alexa, play …” We’ve got them everywhere and the Echo Dot that showed up in October is centrally located on my office desk at Foundry Group.
On Wednesday, Techstars and Amazon announced the Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars. Applications will open in January and the first program will start in July 2017.
Amazon, through their Alexa Fund, has been investing in companies that are using Alexa Voice Service, Alexa Skills Kit, or companies working on the science behind voice technology, including text to speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition, artificial intelligence and hardware component design. Several companies we’ve invested in, including TrackR, Rachio, and Dragon Innovation now count the Alexa Fund as investors.
It’s exciting to me to see Amazon and Alexa take it to the next level with their partnership with Techstars. I expect that will add another reason for me to spend even more time in Seattle.
Today’s #GivingThanks is to David Cohen, one of the founders and co-CEO of Techstars. If David has done something that has touched your life is a positive way and you want to give thanks to him, make a donation online to the Techstars Foundation.
I met David on one of my random days in 2006. I can’t remember who introduced us, but David reminds me that it took him four months to get a meeting with me. He knew he had 15 minutes so he got right down to it as is his nature. We were in my old Superior office (the one about the liquor store where I met Lucy Sanders and so many other great people for the first time.) We said hello, David introduced himself to me, and we sat down. David then slid something across the table and sat silently while I read it.
It was a folded piece of paper that looked liked it had been printed on a color printer at a Kinkos. I opened it in its three-fold glory and read an overview of a thing called TechStars (yes – I immediately noticed the CamelCase) with a logo at the top that closely resembles today’s logo. I had an immediate positive reaction.
When I looked up, David gave me a little more background. He told me we were co-investors in a few companies as angel investors. He then explained why he wasn’t enjoying being an angel investor the way he was then doing it. Remember, it’s 2006 and angel investing is not trendy. In fact, early stage investing in general is in the dog house for many investors, both angels and VCs, as they are still remembering the pain from the collapse of the Internet bubble. While we had at least two angel groups in the Denver/Boulder area in 2006, they were more of a combination of a cocktail party combined with an entrepreneur torture chamber. Founders came in, pitched a bunch of angel investors, got ask a bunch of questions, went away, but rarely ended up with any investment. David had participated but realized that very few angels were writing checks and, when they did, the entrepreneurs didn’t get engaged investors.
David had a vision to change that. He said he wanted to raise about $200,000 to get it started. He was personally putting in $80,000. At about the ten minute mark, I told him that as long as he wasn’t a flake or a crook, I was in for $50,000. He then told me that David Brown (now co-CEO of Techstars), who had been his partner in their first company (Pinpoint Software), would likely do $50,000. I said that was awesome and I’d make a few phone calls and see if I could round up the rest.
After David left, I called Jared Polis. I had met Jared a decade earlier (via an introduction from my first business partner, Dave Jilk) and we had become good friends and co-investors in a handful of companies. I told Jared I was investing $50,000 in a new thing called Techstars that I’d like to see if he wanted to invest in with me. He responded, “Sure, count me in for $50,000. What is it?” And, like that, we had raised the money for the first Techstars Boulder program which ran in 2007.
A decade later, I’m comfortable asserting that Techstars has had a significant positive impact on entrepreneurship around the world. It’s been one of my greatest life pleasures to be involved in it.
David, thank you for showing up in my office and inviting me to be part of Techstars. Here’s the first promotion video, which reminds me how far we’ve come.
But we have only begun. Techstars, which now runs 25 Techstars accelerator programs around the world each year, also runs over 1,000 Startup Weekends a year and 40 Startup Weeks a year. As part of our experience over the last decade, we became immersed in the issue of diversity in entrepreneurship. My work with the National Center for Women & Information Technology informed and inspired this, along with our creation of programs like Patriot Boot Camp and Rising Stars. And, the Techstars mantra of #GiveFirst, which builds on the philosophy I talked about in Startup Communities of “Give Before You Get”, has become deeply embedded in our value system.
At the end of last year, we took this to another level by creating the Techstars Foundation. The foundation mission is straightforward – to improve diversity in entrepreneurship. Our initial funding was provided by the Techstars founders and a few other people close to Techstars. Since then, we’ve done a major matching campaign that Amy and I funded, a partnership with BetaBrand that generated $85,000 in contributions, and several other fundraisers. We are closing in on the foundation having $1 million in the bank, which is an exciting start for us.
We made our first round of grants earlier this year to five organizations: Astia, Patriot Boot Camp, Defy Ventures, Change Catalyst, and Gaza Sky Geeks. I personally adopted Defy Ventures, went to prison for the day, learned an enormous amount about myself in the process, and subsequently made a significant commitment to Defy.
David is now one of my closest friends and my experience working with him and the team at Techstars is one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve done. David – thank you.