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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 8/18: Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts

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As we continue deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, element #8 is Adopt At Least One Company Every Single Year. Experience Counts.

But first, it’s worth noting that yesterday Techstars announced its newest accelerator program, this time the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars. This is our first accelerator with Qualcomm, our first accelerator in San Diego, and all about Robotics. I’m psyched about the Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator Mentor List, which includes a great mix of experienced Techstars mentors along with some new ones.

When I talk to a new mentor, I suggest that they focus on one program during the accelerator program. There’s a tendency as a mentor to skim or do a fly by, where you spend a little time with every company. In a typical Techstars program, this is between 10 and 13 companies, so if you spend an hour a week over the course of the program as a mentor, that’s about an hour per company in total.

In contrast, if you spend a few hours getting to know all the companies in the first two weeks and then commit an hour over the remaining ten weeks to one company, you can really go deep with them as a mentor.

We structure the Techstars programs so the first month is “mentor madness.” The first week of Techstars is total chaos as all of the entrepreneurs and mentors are getting up to speed. The next week or two is endless mentor meetings – lots of “get to know you sessions” – but a huge amount of substance in the mix for the founders. They suffer from a lot of mentor whiplash, where they get feedback from some mentors that contracts feedback from other mentors. This builds incredible muscle early, as the founders learn that the feedback from mentors is merely data that they have to process, not directions that they have to pursue or advice they have to listen to.

By week three, we are starting to more aggressively match lead mentors with companies. By the end of the first month, the best companies have engaged with, for least an hour a week, between three and five lead mentors. Each of these lead mentors has committed to go deep with the company and the best lead mentors limit themselves to one, or possible two (if they are very experienced mentors) companies during the program.

This doesn’t mean that the lead mentor doesn’t spend any time with any of the other companies. Many of the mentors, especially the experienced ones, spend more than an hour a week mentoring at Techstars. But they put extra focus and commitment on one of the companies.

They do this year after year, program after program. One doesn’t magically become a great mentor – you learn how to do it. I’ve seen lots of experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers show up for the first time as a mentor, engage, and just be horribly ineffective. At Techstars, we give all of the mentors feedback, try to help them to be better in real time, and when necessary, be very direct about how they can improve.

But nothing helps a mentor improve more than practice. Continuing to try new things, see how it works, get the feedback loop of mentoring a company, seeing the result, and helping some more. And most importantly, listening to the feedback from the entrepreneurs on what they think is helping them and what is getting in their way, slowing them down, confusing them, or undermining them.

Every mentor has her own style. But all mentors have limited capacity to mentor. Go deep with one company at a time, but do it over and over and over again.

Mentors 7/18: Be Responsive

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Techstars Boulder Demo Day was last week and it was the best one yet. As I got up on stage to close things out, I was incredibly proud of all of the entrepreneurs, but even more proud as I looked out at the audience and saw many of the mentors who make Techstars the experience that it is.

Element seven of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is Be Responsive.

Yeah, it’s obvious, but it’s remarkable to me the number of people who don’t internalize this.

Being responsive means more than just responding to email and phone calls. It means more than being on time to meetings, closing the loop on things you commit to doing, and being intellectually and emotionally available to your mentee. These things are “hygiene issues” – if you can’t at least do this you aren’t going to be an effective mentor.

Being responsive means to be present. To engage with the mentee. To put yourself in her shoes and try to really understand what is going on.

Ponder some of the synonyms for the word responsive:

  • quick to react to
  • receptive to
  • open to suggestions about
  • amenable to
  • flexible to
  • sensitive to
  • sympathetic to
  • aware of

Receptive, amenable, flexible, sensitive, sympathetic, and aware. This requires real emotional intelligence on the part of the mentor.

Everyone has different ways of prioritizing their time and different modes for engaging with others. Understanding this about yourself, and then being clear and consistent about it, is important if you want to be an effective mentor.

You get to define your approach and what you mean by being responsive. While my approach is simply one way, I’ll use it as an example. I focus on three dimensions – a people hierarchy, interaction dynamics, and baseline expectations.

My people hierarchy is well-defined and has been for a long time. In descending order of importance (and responsiveness), I have me, Amy, my family, my partners, our staff, close friends, our investors, the CEOs of the companies we are investors in, the founders of the companies we are investors in, the employees of the companies we are investors in, our co-investors, service providers (lawyers, bankers, accountants) we work with, and then everyone else. I think of this as concentric circles with Amy and my family at the center, then my partners, then staff / friends / investors / CEOs / founders, then employees / co-investors / service providers, and then everyone else. I rarely rank individuals ahead of others within one of the circles, but I do plenty of short term prioritization based on whatever is going on.

My interaction dynamics are fuzzier. I hate the telephone so I reserve it for use with people I have a close relationship with. For everyone else, I’d rather interact via email. I used to travel constantly, but I’ve cut that down substantially in the past year, so I do a lot of video conferences. I don’t like having sitting meetings – I’d rather go for a walk, so I have 15, 30, 45, and 60 minute routes around town. I’m fidgety when I’m in a meeting that lasts longer than an hour, but I’ve trained myself to be in the moment for the meeting however long it takes and, if I can’t hang in, excuse myself for a little while and regroup. Overall, when I’m with another human, I’ve tried to shift away from multi-tasking and instead concentrate on one thing at a time, focusing on whatever is going on. When I’m not with humans, but in front of my computer, I shift into a “cover a wide range of things” mode, where I do a lot of short tasks switching between them.

My baseline expectations are straightforward. I respond to every email I get. I return all the phone calls I get – although often by email. I try to close the loop on anything someone has asked me to do. When I’m with someone, I am with that person.

Now – I don’t get a A+ on all of this, nor do I view that as important. It’s as not static – I expect that these will change over time. But by writing it down and committing to it, I define the structure in which I am responsive. But remember, these are the hygiene issues. This is the framework in which one can then be responsive.

If I did all of these things, but never listened, wasn’t receptive, flexible, or sympathetic I’d be a crummy mentor. By having empathy, being able to engage emotionally with a mentee, and being aware of what the mentee is going through, one becomes responsive to them and their needs.

Mentors 6/18: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way

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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.

Mentors 5/18: Listen Too

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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.

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.

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