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After spending most of the day at littleBits yesterday, I finished it with an annual tradition that is one of my favorites.
At 6:45pm Amy and I met Joanne Wilson, Fred Wilson, Matt Blumberg, and Mariquita Blumberg at Marea for dinner. Fred and I are both on the board of Return Path, the company Matt has been running since he co-founded it in 1999. For over a decade, we’ve been having an annual dinner as a group when Amy and I are in NY, usually in the fall.
Joanne generally picks the restaurant and Amy and I are happy to defer to her excellent taste. We are staying at Columbus Circle so this year Joanne picked something within walking distance for us. As Amy and I were walking home around 9:30, we each commented on how wonderful this tradition is.
I woke up this morning thinking about annual traditions. I’m not a Hallmark holiday person, I don’t like Christmas (although I’ve learned not to be grumpy about it), Thanksgiving crushes my soul, and I’ve never really understood Easter. I’ve learned how to give awesome presents on Valentine’s Day, but I think that’s more because I’m uxorious and well-trained. So I like annual traditions that are out of step with everyone elses.
When I reflect on our dinner, and the conversation, the six of us are enjoying marking the passage of time with this tradition. We are all getting older together, a little softer looking (at least me and Matt), greying at the temples and in the beard (again for me and Matt). We started doing this before Matt and Mariquita had kids and when Fred and Joanne’s kids were pre-teens. All three of Fred and Joanne’s kids are now out of the house and they are starting the empty nest phase of their life.
While it’s amazing to watch time pass, it’s even more powerful to experience the passage of time together. While we all interact regularly, this annual dinner, which is a deeply engaged three-ish hour meal, gives us a chance to really be together, in the moment, and share what is going on. When you link it together over a decade of more of three hour slices, along with all of the other interactions, it allows us to know each other in a uniquely intimate way.
I felt real love and real joy last night. Joanne, Fred, Matt, and Mariquita – y’all are awesome friends. Thanks for being part of my life.
I spent the day yesterday at the Disney Accelerator meeting with each of the teams and then had dinner with the CEOs and a lead mentor for each company. While I’m proud of all the Techstars programs, some of what I heard yesterday, especially around mentor engagement in the Disney program was remarkable. Our premise when we started doing branded accelerators with large companies was that we’d get deep mentor involvement from execs at the company we are partnering with. In Disney’s case, the access, exposure, and support of the Disney executives as mentors for the 11 companies in the program has been extraordinary.
As I continue my series on the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, which I’m planning to turn into an book called “Give First” that FG Press will publish early next year, I come to Manifesto Item #6: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way.
When I reflect on my best mentors, they are very long term relationships where I hope they’ve now gotten as much from me as I’ve gotten from them. I call this “peer mentoring” and – while it can start as an equal relationship, it’s magical when it evolves from a mentor – mentee relationship.
Following are two examples from my own life.
Len Fassler is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the honor of knowing. Len and his partner Jerry Poch bought my first company in 1993. I still remember the first time I met Len, sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boston, wondering to myself “who is this guy and what does he want?” After Len and Jerry bought my company, the two of them took me under their wing and exposed me to doing deals. In addition to having my company acquired, I worked with them on the diligence team for a number of other acquisitions. They were both incredibly patient with me since I knew nothing about M&A or investments, and when I started making angel investments a few months after my company was acquired, they followed on, invested with me, and invited me into some of the companies they were investing in. After I left AmeriData, my relationship with each of them blossomed, but in different ways. Jerry and I made some VC investments together, but Len and I started several companies together. One of them – Interliant (where we were co-chairman) – was a huge success for a while, reaching a peak market cap of about $3 billion on NASDAQ. The company was decimated by the collapse of the Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt. Len and I spent thousands of hours together during this time and the amount I learned from working side by side with him can’t be quantified or categorized. We continued to work on other stuff together after Interliant, and enjoyed some successes that were sweet and satisfying after the ending pain of the Interliant experience.
If someone said I was a vessel for perpetuating and evolving Len’s business approach and personal philosophy to people throughout time and space, I’d accept that.
At the same time, I’ve heard Len say many times that’s he’s learned a huge amount from working with me. I know I am the key reason he no longer wears a tie at work, but the dance and intermingling of our experiences, personal philosophies, joys (highs), miseries (lows), and shared time has shaped both of us. Len’s 82 and I’m 48, so he’s definitely the mentor and I’m the mentee in the relationship. But after over 20 years of working together, we have a deep, intimate, peer relationship.
Charlie Feld is my dad’s brother / my uncle. I referred to him as Uncle Charlie the other day in my post From Punch Cards to Implants. He introduced me to my first company when I was 11 and allowed me to tag along with him for many years into my mid-20s. I sat in executive meetings at DEC and Lotus that I had no business being a part of, learned about EIS’s when I was a teenager, got early access to Compaq portables that hadn’t been released yet, and generally got exposed to how IT and MIS worked in large companies. Charlie started his own company, The Feld Group, in 1992, when my company (Feld Technologies) was five years old. Suddenly, Charlie and I were having peer discussions about our respective consulting businesses. After I sold my company and started investing in companies in 1994, Charlie and I talked regularly about the Internet, which was just emerging as something that large companies should pay attention to. At the same time, Charlie exposed me to what he was doing to re-architect and modernize enormously complex and disastrous legacy systems at places like Delta and Burlington Northern. In addition to helping me understand a number of fundamental things about technology at scale, I got exposed to the complexity of very large organizations, both from the top down and outside in.
In 2000, I invested via Mobius Venture Capital in The Feld Group and joined the board. This took our relationship to a new level. While I was now investor / partner / board member, the intellectual and emotional intimacy of our relationship increased. The Feld Group grew rapidly during this time period until it was acquired in 2004 by EDS. While aspects of my universe during this time were excruciating due to the bursting of the Internet bubble, my experience with Charlie and The Feld Group was grounding and enlightening as it gave me a window into the success and importances of enterprise IT while all the startups around me were melting down.
As with my relationship with Len, I feel that my relationship with Charlie is a peer relationship today. While he’s 25 years older than me, we learn from each other in every interaction. We continue to work closely together – Charlie’s newest book “The Calloway Way” is being published by FG Press and we are going to do some book events together to help both executives and entrepreneurs understand the magic of Wayne Calloway and his management approach.
Each of these relationships are long term ones – Len and I since 1993 and Charlie and I since I was born in 1965. I treasure every moment I have with each of them. Sure – we have conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, but they have been profound in shaping my development as a business person and a human. As mentors, they gave first in every sense of the word. And I hope they feel like I’ve given back at least as much.
As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.
Item 5 is “Listen Too.”
Pause and ponder for a minute.
Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.
There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.
In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.
The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.
Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.
But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.
Amy and I take a week off the grid every quarter. It is one of the things that has kept me sane and us together over the past 14 years.
This morning I saw a great short clip from the Today Show that got forwarded around on the US becoming a no vacation nation. They include an interview with Bart Lorang discussing FullContact’s Paid PAID vacation policy. It also shows an iconic picture of what stimulated this, which was Bart checking his email on his iPhone while riding on a camel with his then girlfriend / now wife in front of some pyramids.
Everyone in my universe works incredibly hard. But the really great ones know the value of disconnecting for periods of time to recharge their batteries and refresh their brains. If you want more on this, grab a copy of the book Amy and wrote called Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.
Today’s installment of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is #4: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard.
Let’s start with “Be Direct.”
At some intellectual level, being direct is easy. You just say what is on your mind. You say it in a declarative way. You lead with it and support it with either experience or examples.
But humans have a very difficult time being direct. Many of us can’t get to the point. We thrive on inductive reasoning. We are passive aggressive in our behavior. This is especially the case when we don’t know the answer to something or when we are uncomfortable with the truth.
Reflect for a moment on how you answer a question when you don’t know the answer. Do you use the magic and wonderful phrase “I don’t know.” Or do you skirt around the question, searching for an answer that is somewhat relevant, while reframing the question more to your liking. Or do you just spew out whatever comes to mind, extrapolating truth from one data point you have lurking in your brain somewhere?
Don’t do this. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. But if you know, be direct.
You might think this contradicts Mentor Manifesto #1: Be Socratic. Remember that “be socratic” doesn’t just mean “ask questions”, it’s all about asking questions to get at the why of something. They key is that when you get at the why, and really get at it, then flip into being direct.
Now, consider the concept “Tell The Truth, However Hard.”
At 48, I’m no longer able, or willing, to lie. As a kid, I’d stretch the truth to exaggerate my own self-importance or the perceived excitement of a story. I did a few things I was ashamed of and lied to cover up and avoid exposing what I’d done. But whenever I got caught in a lie, which was most of the time, I felt badly about myself. My parents handled this really well. Rather than punishing me, they would talk about the deceit and make me face it. They were calm but direct and unyielding. At some point I realized dealing with the ramification of getting caught in a lie was much worse than telling the truth in the first place. I owe it to my parents for instilling this value in me.
By college I don’t think I lied very often. I still exaggerated the truth, but never purposefully lied. The next person to whack me over the head about this was my first business partner, Dave Jilk. At Feld Technologies, I was the primary salesman although Dave sold plenty of business over the years, especially with existing customers. I often made Dave frustrated with two behaviors. The first was when I oversold something and we ended up starting a new client relationship with expectations that were far out of line with what we could deliver. The other was when I was selling Dave on my position, trying to convince him of something by stretching the truth, exaggerating the wonderfulness of the outcome, or, in some cases, just trying to push through with the force of my personality, regardless of the reality of the situation. Dave would regularly challenge and push back on me, which eventually helped me realize that overselling, exaggerating, and overstating the situation ultimately lowered my credibility.
The killing blow for me on lying was when my first wife had a year long affair. The level of deceit in that dynamic, including between the two of us in our inability to be direct with each other about how we felt and what was going on, along with the corresponding emotional fallout for me, was overwhelming. I made an internal commitment to myself to never do that to someone else, regardless of the situation.
I proceeded to get involved in a relationship with a person I’d describe as a “truth teller” or a “fair witness” (for those of you who are fans of Stranger in a Strange Land.) Amy is incapable of not telling the truth, no matter how difficult, and after 23 years of being together, that has become deeply ingrained in my value system.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. I make a lot of them. All the time. And when I do, and I realize it, I own it. Which is another version of telling the truth. It’s easy, especially as a mentor, to gloss over the fact that you made a mistake. But it’s much more powerful to the mentee when you own your mistakes and correct them.
Linking together the ideas of “being direct” and “telling the truth” is very powerful. You end up holding yourself up to a high standard of behavior and communication. And you set an example for those you mentor, just like I learned from my parents, Dave, and Amy.