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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard

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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.

Mentors 3/18: Be Authentic – Practice What You Preach

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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?

Mentors 2/18: Expect Nothing In Return

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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.

Mentors 1/18: Be Socratic

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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.

The Benefit of Mentor Whiplash

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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!

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