I’m in Minneapolis with my partner Seth. We had a meeting at Best Buy headquarters, met with a gang from the Mayo Clinic who drove up from Rochester, spent the afternoon at the Techstars Retail Accelerator which is at Target headquarters, and had dinner with Revolar. We are at the Techstars Retail Accelerator again today, then at Leadpages for a board meeting, and wrapping up with an internal Target event and an external startup community event put on by Beta.MN.
It’s two full days of immersion in the Minneapolis startup community. As I crawled into bed last night after jamming through my email, I smiled and thought to myself that Seth and I had a good day with a bunch of people talking about the power of entrepreneurship – and how the entrepreneurs are the leaders – while getting to work with a bunch of entrepreneurs.
I woke up to Fred Wilson’s post Understanding VCs and nodded my way through it. I particularly loved how he started.
VCs are not heroes. We are just one part of the startup ecosystem. We provide the capital allocation function and are rewarded when we do it well and eventually go out of business when we don’t do it well. I know. I’ve gone out of business for not doing it well.
If there are heroes in the startup ecosystem, they are the entrepreneurs who take the biggest risks and create the products, services, and companies that we increasingly rely on as tech seeps into everything.
What Fred said.
VCs – go read his post and reflect on it.
Entrepreneurs – go read his post and take it to heart.
Fred – thanks for saying it so well in your inimitable direct style. Understanding VCs is one for the books …
I’ve started working on my next book, currently titled #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in the Era of Entrepreneurship. As a result, my brain is especially tuned to good examples that show a particular aspect of what we refer to as #GiveFirst at Techstars.
I was working at my desk the other day when Krista Marks, the CEO of Woot Math came in and said hi. We are investors and Jason is on her board. Krista and I have been close friends for over a decade and I always have time for her no matter what is going on.
She wanted to tell me a story about #GiveFirst so I stopped what I was doing, sat back in my chair, and listened. After she told me the story, I smiled and asked her if she was game for me to put it up on my blog as an example. She said yes and after she left I put a draft title in WordPress to remind me to recreate / write the story when I had some writing time.
Later that day, Krista sent me the full story, which follows, in an email. While the example is a simple one, it captures the essence of #GiveFirst nicely. Krista’s words follow.
A couple of weeks ago, I had just arrived in San Antonio to setup and exhibit Woot Math at a conference.
But I also desperately needed to find a conference room to use in the morning for a video presentation and live demo of Woot Math for the board of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund. The convention center didn’t have a room or WiFi I could rent in the center, but they pointed me to the Marriott across the street. The Marriott did have a conference room available for rent. Awesome! Here’s where the story should end, right? But then came the asking price: $400 for the room, $200 for WiFi, and $250 for a phone! I rejected the offer out of principle.
At this point it was after 4:00pm the day before I was scheduled to present at NSVF, and I was starting to worry.
My colleage Tom suggested, “maybe there’s a startup space that rents rooms.” We searched and found Geekdom:
No phone was listed but there was an address; with time running out, we decide to hop in the car and drive there.
When we arrive, it’s close to 5:00pm. I hurried up to the 7th floor of a new, modern office building. The door was locked, but there was a large window, and I caught someone’s eye. I explained that I’m the CEO of Woot Math, a startup in Boulder, and I need to a room to rent for an hour for an important meeting tomorrow.
I’m immediately welcomed in, and taken to Luke Owen, the COO of Geekdom. Luke asked if I’m involved in anyway with Techstars, and I’m pleased to share that I’m a mentor for the Boulder Techstars program. It turns out that Luke is one of the program managers for Techstars Startup Next in San Antonio, which runs it out of Geekdom.
After chatting and sharing lots of common, small world connections, Luke took me a cool conference room with high-ceilings and a large window. I’m told that it is mine for the day; I’m leant his VoIP conference phone; and I’m encouraged to help myself to coffee and the kitchen.
At this point, I’m pretty overwhelmed by Luke’s warmth and generosity. I say something like, “Wow. I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” It turns out he’s working with TeachTag, an ed-tech startup helping teachers be more organized. Luke asks if he can connect me with the founders Aaron Schuenemann. Here’s the lovely introduction that Luke sent –
It makes me so happy and proud to be part of the Techstars community and it such a powerful reminder of how entrepreneurs make the world better. Every day.
For the next 90 days, Amy and I are matching every gift to the Techstars Foundation on a 1:2 basis up to $100,000 from us. Our overall goal is to raise at least $300,000 for the Techstars Foundation by the end of the summer.
If Techstars has touched you in any positive way, I’d request that you consider making a grant to the Techstars Foundation. This request includes anyone who has gone through a Techstars accelerator, done a Startup Weekend, participated in a Startup Week, receives Startup Digest, or has been a mentor or investor in any Techstars company or program. Or anyone else who has been positively motivated or influenced by Techstars in any way.
When we started Techstars in 2006, our goal was to change the way early stage company creation and innovation worked. While we didn’t have the words for it then, we’ve evolved the language and the mission of the organization over the last decade which we now summarize in the tagline “Techstars is the global ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs build great businesses”
As part of building this global ecosystem of entrepreneurs, I’ve observed and experienced a massive issue around diversity in entrepreneurship. This is not a new issue to me as I’ve been working with various organizations, such as National Center for Women & Information Technology, since 2005.
Last year, in a conversation with the Techstars leadership team, we decided to start the Techstars Foundation with the goal of improving diversity in entrepreneurship. While we were already doing lots of things internally around this, by creating the foundation we have taken it up a level, as evidenced by our first five grants that were made last month.
Amy and I decided to launch this challenge grant as part of a larger gift from us to the Techstars Foundation. We hope you join us and support our efforts.
Techstars had an incredible year in 2015 and grew the organization on many dimensions. If you want a full view of what Techstars is – and is doing – today, take a look at the 2015 Global Impact Report.
To everyone who has been involved in Techstars in any way, thank you!
The current grant cycle for the Techstars Foundation is now open. We are providing grants, scholarships, and sponsorships to underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship, including women and minorities.
There are two common ways to scale a system – horizontally or vertically. If you are a software engineer, you probably get this instinctively. If you don’t know what this is, let’s work with the simple Wikipedia definition which is pretty good.
- Scale Vertically (or “scale up”): Add resources to a single node in a system, typically involving the addition of CPUs or memory to a single computer.
- Scale Horizontally (or “scale out”): Add more nodes to a system, such as adding a new computer to a distributed software application.
Think of vertical scaling as building a bigger monolithic machine and horizontal scaling as add more machines to the system. Or, if you want a business construct, vertically scaling would be adding more people in one location while horizontal scaling would be creating a bunch of new locations, optimally with a similar footprint to the previous locations.
These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can scale vertically and horizontally at the same time. But while many contemporary technology approaches embrace scale horizontally, many business approaches are limited to primarily scaling vertically.
If you’ve spent any time with me, you know that scaling horizontally is a huge part of how I think. My entire world functions as a large and wide distributed network. However, for the past eight years, my partners and I at Foundry Group haven’t once scaled vertically (we haven’t added any partners since 2007 when we started) until we added Lindel Eakman as part of Foundry Group Next.
Our reach, network, visibility, and impact has grown significantly since 2007. As part of this, we’ve done many things to scale horizontally. Co-founding and helping build Techstars is an example of that. In addition, embedded in the Techstars growth model is a horizontal scaling strategy.
If you reflect on one part of Techstars – the accelerator programs – we’ve added the following new programs in 2015.
- Techstars Mobility (Detroit)
- Techstars Berlin (Berlin)
- Techstars METRO (Berlin)
- Techstars IoT (NYC)
- Barclays (New York, South Africa and Israel)
- Techstars Healthcare, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai (Los Angeles)
- Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target (Minneapolis)
- Virgin Media Accelerator (London)
- Techstars Atlanta, in partnership with Cox Enterprises (Atlanta)
Each of these accelerators is based on the same model that we use to run all of the Techstars accelerator programs. We feel that we have mastery over an approach to a mentor-driven accelerator, run by a small team, in any geography around the world, that is another node on the ever expanding horizontal network that is Techstars. These programs don’t run in isolation – rather they are part of a horizontal scaling strategy based on a premise that you can build startups, and a startup community, anywhere in the world.
When you ponder Techstars’ acquisition of UP Global, especially if you think about how horizontal scaling and geography intersect, you get a glimpse of another layer of functionality that we just added to the horizontal scaling model. In addition to adding a bunch of new nodes, we also added new functionality to each node.
Remember that horizontal and vertical scaling are not mutually independent. Techstars growth from 55 employees at the end of 2014 to 131 employees as of today is happening on both horizontal and vertical dimensions. But the horizontal leverage that we’ve created, and figured out how to replicate, is as powerful as anything I’ve ever encountered in business.
I’m looking forward to 2016 on both dimensions.
This is my last blog post of 2015. I’m taking a break from a bunch of things for a while.
#GiveFirst is the title of my next book, which will come out sometime in 2016. I’ve started working on it and realize that I have a finite amount of daily writing energy. Since I no longer wake up every morning at 5am (I don’t use an alarm clock anymore), I have a less predictable morning routine. As a result, my writing times are more random and chaotic, which I like, but means that it’s harder to have big chunks of time on a consistent basis.
For now, #GiveFirst wins over blogging.
But that’s not the only thing driving my blogging hiatus. After over a decade of almost daily public writing, I feel like I need a break. Some is boredom, some is a burdensome feeling around an obligation to an almost daily habit, and some is the lack of freshness I feel in my writing.
I’ve always enjoyed multiple forms of writing – micro (tweets), short (blog posts), medium (magazine articles), and long form (books). I also write a lot of other stuff all day long (mostly emails) and the majority of my communication is written, which I prefer much more than verbal. But I feel like I’ve hit a wall of some kind. And, whenever I hit a wall, my first instinct is to shake some things up.
As I approach turning 50, which happens on December 1st, I’m finding less enjoyment from short bursts of communication and more from just spending time with friends, with Amy, or by myself. So, through the end of the year, I’m going on a diet. No more blogging. No more twitter. No more commenting on blogs. No more social media of any sort. In addition to stopping generating content (and plenty of online exhaust fumes), I’m going to stop consuming it also.
I have no idea what will happen on January 1st, 2016 – that’s part of the fun of it for me. A ten week reset on this front will be interesting to me. For now, 100% of my public writing will be dedicated to working on #GiveFirst and I’ll explore a new rhythm by subtracting out a lot of other stuff.
See you in 2016.
Techstars Boulder Demo Day is this week. It always marks the true end of summer for me and it’s a reminder that I stalled out on my Techstars Mentor Manifesto series of blog posts.
The last one I wrote was #11: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine. It’s an important life rule – either commit or don’t commit – but choose! Mentor Manifesto #12 is also a good life rule: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know.
We all know Mr. Smartest Guy In The Room. I find him insufferable and have nicknamed him Mr. Smartypants. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Mr. Smartypants in my world as he inhabits the bodies of some entrepreneurs and the souls of a lot of investors. Regardless of who he manifests himself in, he’s still tiresome and when there are two of him in the room, watch out.
The best mentors are not Mr. Smartypants. While a great mentor knows a lot and has had plenty of experiences, she’s always learning. The best mentor/mentee relationships are peer relationships, where the mentor learns as much from the mentee as she teaches the mentee. There’s no room in this relationship for Mr. Smartypants.
I know a lot about some things. And I know very little, or nothing about a lot more things. My business and technology experience is deep in software, where even the hardware companies we are investors in (Fitbit, Sphero, Makerbot, Glowforge, littleBits, and some others) are what we like to refer to as “software wrapped in plastic.” At the essence of it all is software and that’s what I know best.
But I don’t know all software. And I especially don’t know vertical markets. We’ve consciously stayed horizontal in our investing, being much more interested in our themes which apply to many different vertical markets. But ask me about a vertical market, whether it be entertainment, real estate, insurance, auto, food, energy, or financial services and I’ll often approach it with a beginners mind.
In some cases I think something generic will apply to a vertical market. But when asked about something structural, even though I’ve had lots of different experiences, read a zillion magazine articles over the years, and might have some opinions, as a mentor I’m quick to say I Don’t Know, unless I’m confident that I do.
When I find myself in an “I Don’t Know” situation as a mentor, I immediately start trying to figure out who I can refer the entrepreneur to who might know something about the situation. And, just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I’m not curious about finding out more. I’ll often stay engaged and hear what the mentor has to say, just so I get the benefit of having more data in my head to play around with in the future.
I say “I don’t know” or some version of it at least daily. How often do you say it?
Today Techstars announced that it has acquired UP Global, including the organization’s Startup Weekend, Startup Week, Startup Next, and Startup Digest programs.
This is great news for entrepreneurs everywhere.
Both organizations have a deep seated community-centric ethos that aims to accelerate the pace of innovation through community-focused, entrepreneurial-led business creation. UP is now in 600 cities, 120 countries and six continents. Techstars now has over 18 programs worldwide and counting.
Together, Techstars and UP Global create a powerful union which will strengthen the global entrepreneurial ecosystem and bring even more support to the entrepreneur’s journey. The two organizations are stronger together because of the efficiencies gained from meeting in the middle of this journey: UP Global focuses on grassroots, community-led inspiration and getting founders started on their path, while Techstars helps to make that dream a reality by helping founders establish solid, sustainable and successful companies.
I’ve been involved in both organizations since the beginning – as one of the founders of Techstars and as a board member for UP Global. Both organizations started on the entrepreneurial journey together and share a similar vision of entrepreneurship. The first Startup Weekend took place in Boulder in June 2007 and I’ve been on the UP Global board since it was formed by the merger of Startup Weekend and the Startup America Partnership. Many of the ideas in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City have been informed by my experiences with these organizations and they have incorporated many of the ideas from the book into what they do.
When David Cohen, David Brown, Jared Polis, and I founded Techstars back in 2007, our vision was to make entrepreneurship accessible to everyone. By bringing UP into the Techstars family, this helps to bring this vision even closer to reality.
Together, UP and Techstars have built programs and resources for every stage of the entrepreneurial journey – from community catalysts who are focused on early stage grassroots community development to entrepreneurs looking for more formal opportunities that provide education, experience, acceleration, and funding.
The merger of these two great organizations is a logical next step in the expansion of vibrant startup communities around the world. I’m a huge believer in consolidating efforts between complementary organizations. This one was a natural one and I’m excited about what’s coming UP!
You may recognize Scott’s name – I wrote about him in my post When VCs Don’t Bullshit You.
The next person on the list of supporters is Scott Maxwell at OpenView Venture Partners. Scott and I were both on the Microsoft VC Advisory Board that Dan’l Lewin organized and ran. While we had never invested together, I felt like Scott was a kindred spirit. We both spoke truth to Microsoft execs, even though they mostly ignored us. I remember a meeting with the Microsoft Mobile 6.0 team as they were pitching us their vision for Microsoft Mobile 6.5. Both Scott and I, on iPhone 1’s or 2’s at the time, told them they were completely and totally fucked. They ignored us. A year or two later they had less than 3% market share on mobile. We had a blast together and as we went out to raise our Foundry 2007 fund, Scott made several introductions which resulted in two wonderful, long term LP relationships.
That’s how a friendship develops, at least in my world. You do stuff together, learn from each other, and then do things for each other. Simple.
Scott’s post is a great history lesson about the evolution of “value-added VC” behavior, especially around organization building by VC firms to “add more value” to their portfolio companies.
Before I dig in, I need to express two biases. First, whenever someone says “I’m a (adjective) (noun)” I immediately think they are full of shit. When someone says “I’m a great tennis player”, I immediately wonder why they needed to tell me they are great and it makes me suspicious. “I’m a deep thinker” makes me wonder the last time the person opened a book. “I’m a value-added VC” makes me think “Isn’t that price of admission?”
Second, I went through the scale up of the organizational VC firm in the late 1990s at Mobius Venture Capital. When we started Mobius, we were four founders and two EAs. At one point we were a 70 person organization, with 10 partners, 20 associates, two business development people, three recruiters, a marketing person, two incubators (anyone remember Hotbank?), a staff to run the Hotbanks, a big back office for accounting, EIRs, and some others folks.
It was a disaster. Now, you can argue that we were terrible at it. Or that we completely fucked it up. Or that our basic premises about what we were doing was wrong. Or that how we managed it was ineffective. Or that it would have worked great if only the Internet bubble hadn’t collapsed. Or probably 83 other arguments.
Regardless, it created a very deeply held belief that I share with my partners at Foundry Group that we wanted to run a VC firm that had none of this. We didn’t want associates. We didn’t want to grow. We didn’t want to build an organization. Instead, we wanted to be extremely close to the entrepreneurs and do all the work ourselves. It just occurred to me that we are bare metal VCs. That kind of fits with the word Foundry in our name.
So, my fundamental biases are (a) I don’t like the phrase “value-added investor” and (b) I have no interest in building a VC firm that looks like one that is configured the way many of the current larger VC firms are organizing themselves.
However, while it’s a bias, I have no opinion on whether it’s a better or worse approach. It’s a different approach. And that’s totally cool – there are lots of different ways to do things successfully. And there are lots of different ways to fuck things up.
In my opinion, Scott is one of the guys that is doing this effectively. I’m an investor in Scott’s funds and a very happy one. Scott’s also been thinking about this and working on it for over 15 years, now at two different firms, so he has a lot of run time with what works and what doesn’t. Many folks that are trying to incorporate “value-add infrastructure” into their firms would be wise to read his post carefully.
Now, if you are paying attention to my biases, you’d logically ask “So why did you co-found Techstars and why are you and your Foundry Group partners so involved?” Remember that it’s a different approach. We deeply believe that the way companies are created and funded, especially at the seed stage, is radically changing on a permanent basis. Techstars, at the very beginning, was based on this premise. It’s scaling magnificently around this premise and the iteration loop on learning is incredibly tight. And, while we are very close to it, Techstars is not “our firm” so we can help with our opinions, lessons we’ve learned, and belief system without having to run it.
Remember, there are lots of different ways to do something. However, there’s a huge difference between “doing something” and “doing something successfully.” The distinction is always worth paying attention to.