Mentors 2/18: Expect Nothing In Return

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.

  • JeffreyAllen

    Great post. For your random meetings, do you set them up with people you want to speak with or is this a day when you tell all the people who want to meet with you to schedule time?

    • Curious about this too. How did you setup your random days in your 20’s, before everyone and their cat wanted to speak with you?

      I love the idea, as it opens up the door for synchronicities, breaking us out of our routine & expectations.

      • I wasn’t systematic about it in my 20s nor did I realize what I was doing. I just took meetings with anyone in any context. At some point I realized what was going on.

      • Creeklife

        I like the idea of random days too, I’d try it but I was thinking the same thing – I live close to a university, maybe contacting the school and meetup with a professor of a class would be a interesting way to start?

    • The second – we just point them at a web sign up for and they choose a time.

  • My saying is give thrice before you except to receive. I think it places limits on the relationship which is good. You are totally willing to give several times before you expect anything in return. After giving past a certain number of times without any consideration you realize the person you are giving to is a me-me.

    • True, but I don’t limit it that way. After I realize I’m in a one way relationship that isn’t satisfying, I tell the other person about Give Before You Get. I also tell them that’s my last gift to them until I see them give something to someone else – it doesn’t have to be me – but it has to be visible. This works a lot and, when it doesn’t, it’s usually pretty obvious right away.

  • Creeklife

    Right on the money – To give with no expectations makes for a healthier lifestyle, less stress and it bubbles over to other important parts of your life – like friends and family.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Excellent post. I need to shift more towards a give before you get. Reading your post made me realize I’ve been in a pay it forward mentality. I’ve had the chance of meeting some really great people who helped me out without expecting anything in return. Made me realize how much impact a mentor can have.

    • Yay! I always take the time to differentiate Pay it Forward from Give Before You Get. Pay it Forward is good, but not nearly as powerful as Give Before You Get, especially over a long period of time.

  • lksugarman

    Brad, I think this needs to be added to The Four Agreements!

  • I’ve recently left a great position at a great company for what I think is an even better opportunity for me. When I asked the founder why he recruited me, my demonstration of “give before you get” in the community was in the top 3 reasons. A concrete example of what the “get” part of the equation can be.

    When I first started volunteering in the community I had a lot of people ask me my motives, suspicious that I was practicing “give to get” instead of “give before you get”. It took a couple of years of consistent volunteering for those types of questions to fade away. Don’t be discouraged if people question your motives – it takes folks a little while to warm up to the idea that people can give for the sake of giving (though I’ve also gotten plenty in return).

    • You are a great example of the value of persistence here. I remember a few people asking me about you early on. My response was “Bing’s the real deal.” And now everyone knows it, because you are.

      • Thanks Brad – greatly appreciated.

  • Chris Heivly

    In 2009, I reached out to you (Brad) for advice on getting The Startup Factory off the ground here in Durham, NC and the best piece of advice you gave turned into “give before you get”. It set the tone for me for the last 5 years and I think for our entire community. 2,000 one-on-one meetings later over this 5 year period and I have easily changed my life and many others.

    We also added Open/Scheduled Office Hours that are open to anyone for a 30 minute slot. No filters. All inclusive. It’s the only way.

    If you are questioning the approach – don’t. It is literally life changing.

    • I remember that conversation well. Congrats on all the progress you’ve made in Durham since then!

  • Transactional thinking is the antithesis to mentoring. Your points and those in the comments give full form to this.

    To extend this thought a bit further, the GBYG perspective or belief system is not limited to individual mentors and in fact, serves as the basis for the success or lack thereof for many regions/places trying to jump on the entrepreneurial wave. “Give before you get” is the foundational component of an “abundance mentality” and the converse is true as well, “Getting mine first” leads to a “scarcity mentality”. Success/growth or failure/decline follow hand in hand. This is abundantly demonstrated in our Rust Belt cities.

    People can identify that a culture shift is needed to change their regional attitudes, but have a harder time seeing the same thing is critical to their individual belief systems (and that their belief systems are collectively the source of their regional situation).

    • Well said. This is at the core of my Startup Communities book and I’m going to give lots of new examples of it in Startup Communities 2: The Sequel.

  • Brad,

    You are the reason that I have had the honor to mentor five TS classes, and it’s with gratitude that I write this post.

    Expect Nothing in Return is a key pillar of the mentoring process. I too begin my mentor sessions with “This is all about you – tell me how I can help.” This typically leads to an incredible and energized conversation with some of the most energetic and intelligent entrepreneurs with whom I’ve engaged. But focal to the mentor mindset is: I’m doing this because I want to help, and I want nothing in return for it.

    Mentoring is itself a gift. The fact that a company that is charging through a program while firing from all cylinders is taking the time to meet with a mentor for guidance is no small thing. And when given that opportunity to help, I believe that it’s incumbent on me to put everything else out of my mind and simply give. Give of myself, my time, my resources, my background, my experience, my mind and my heart.

    One of my favorite things to do is to drop in on a random TS day, block out an hour or two, and announce to the companies that I’m there for anything they want. Then I plant myself in a break-out room and get the incredible opportunity to hear about what’s happening with a company that week, and hopefully have a dialogue that leads them a step closer to meeting one of their goals. Planned meetings are always nice too, but drop ins lead to a more casual dialogue that involves what’s happening at that very moment in the company’s life.

    The Expect Nothing in Return mentality has extended into other areas of my work, and has been incredibly rewarding. Of note, many of the founders have become personal friends. And it makes it even more special to then share in their successes, and to be there for them in the event that they hit a roadblock and need to bounce ideas around to lift them over the hurdle.

    I’m grateful to you for getting me involved as a mentor, and I’m grateful to TS for giving me the chance to give with no expectation of anything in return. It’s something we need more of in business, and to have the opportunity to do it year-round through TS is awesome. #givefirst

    • I’m grateful you took the time to write this, as well as all the incredibly energy you have put into Techstars and your mentoring. It has been awesome to get to know you and work with you. I’m looking forward to a walk and a smoothie on Friday!

  • Completely agree. I met with Brad last August on one of his random days, and a key piece of his advice to me was GBYG. Leading a company in LA, I’d not integrated into Boulder’s great community. Over the past 11 months, I’ve been living that philosophy, and truly enjoying the experiences, and the great people I’ve met, by helping in whatever ways I can. I’m so thankful for that 15 minutes and that positive advice.

    • Super – great to hear it made an impression and you are spreading it to LA!

      • It definitely made an impression, and I’ve ben doing it — and happily, in and near Boulder since I’m no longer traveling to LA. Again, thanks!

  • “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…” Wow; Brad, you tell it like it t-i-z. Random days sound amazing.

    • Random days are wonderful. They are draining (I’m always tired at the end of one) but so many interesting things have happened as a result of them. A long time ago I decided my goal was to learn one new thing from each meeting. As a result, almost every 15 minute session is useful, even if nothing actionable comes from it.

      • I love this attitude Brad. I love to introduce myself, then stay quiet. It’s through writing that I actually get a chance to speak. Still, when I signed up to have a tiny journal with wordpress the thing that attracted me most was the ‘bring a pie’ to the dinner aspect.
        I think that’s what you are saying here. Well written. Thanks.

  • yazinsai

    Great series! It’s like Marc Andressen’s tweet storms on steroids (read alot more actionable/useful).

    • Thx! I’ve tried to tweetstorm a few times but I find it very unsatisfying / inauthentic for me. I’m definitely a longer form writer. Glad you are enjoying the series on mentorship.

  • *The* single most significant blog post I’ve ever come across.

  • *The* single most significant blog post I’ve ever come across personally.

    In 1996, I’ve thoroughly studied marketing on a self-taught basis, and concluded that the best marketing strategy is to be following the golden rule — which is a “cousin”of the concept here.

    I’ve been practicing “selflessness” in various forms “random acts of kindness”, etc. for years — and have been encouraging others to do so — and good things have happened as a result, including marrying my soulmate.

    I say this is the most significant blog post I’ve ever read because, people have been trying to marry Western and Eastern philosophies for years, but if we simply taught kids in school the idea of giving before receiving, it would have the most profound impact on our society.

    And it’s a very digestible piece of advice — not esoteric or weird — the way it has been pragmatically and heuristically laid out here.

    • Thanks Mario. It’s pretty amazing to see the impact of this philosophy / approach when woven into a startup community. We’ve been practicing and advocating this in Boulder for a long time and it really carries through everything that happens.

      • Yep, there is nothing more powerful than empathy, kindness and acting as a human being; and you my friend, are the embodiment of of all that, from what I can tell… and I have to confess, the 1/2 bottle of wine I just had has helped nicely put that sentence together 🙂

        But believe me, when the buzz fully evaporates in 1/2 hour or so, I’ll still feel exactly the same way.

        And now, if you excuse me, I’ll go plug in my Stratocaster and create some awesome music that might make David Gilmour himself proud 🙂

  • Michael Shaler

    “Expect nothing in return” is the measure–the true measure–of true entrepreneurship and a nice variant of “Take nothing personally.” Seeing the practice of loving kindness in the business world is an utterly astonishing moment. Thank you so much for making this point so very, very clear…

  • I have to share this story with all of you because while it was such a simple act, it has had such a profound effect on my way of thinking – I may have mentioned this to you already Brad. It happened to a girlfriend about 25 years ago now.

    It was a rainy day on a busy highway when she got a flat. She pulled over and started rummaging through her trunk to find the spare tire and tools. As she struggled to remove the flat tire a taxi driver stopped and told her to get inside the car. The location was dangerous. It was an old car so it took a while, but he managed to put the spare on eventually… but not before becoming completely drenched from the rain and the incessant spray from the passing cars.

    She reached for her wallet and pulled out some money to pay him for his time, wet clothes and lost fares on what would normally be a lucrative day for him.

    He refused to take the money. He simply asked that she return the favor twice, and ask that those people do the same.

    How admirable! In his own way he changed the world.