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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.
I’m not a big city guy, so one of my favorite things to do when I find myself in a big city is get up early, before the city wakes up, and go for a run. There’s something about the silence echoing throughout a vast developed physical space such as LA that calms me down and builds up some reserves for me for the day.
I was in LA all day yesterday – starting with a Fireside Chat organized by David C Murphy. It was a full room of entrepreneurs and what I hope was a stimulating and useful conversation for them. I got in an Uber and traveled across town to Nix Hydra, a company run by two remarkable young women that we recently invested in. I got in another Uber and returned to Santa Monica where I attended the Innovators Collective Dinner, hung out with some old friends, and met a few new ones. Today I’m at the Disney Accelerator and tomorrow I’m at Oblong.
At dinner, I sat with my long time friend Matt McCall. Matt and I were on the FeedBurner board together and he’s got a powerful connection between LA and Chicago – another city with an incredibly thriving startup community. Matt’s part of Pritzker Group Venture Capital which has offices in Chicago and LA as a result of where JB Pritzker and Tony Pritzker call home (Chicago and LA respectively). While they invest nationally, they have deep roots in both cities and are key players in the respective startup communities, along with the cities at large.
As I was talking to Matt, it rolled around in my head that there are a lot of similarities in the growth of both the Chicago and LA startup communities. Our engagement with each is similar – we have Techstars programs in each (Techstars Chicago and Disney Accelerator), we’ve made investments in each over the years, and they are each cities that I have personal affinity for and have spent a lot of time in, even though I’m not a big city kid.
I came back to an email in my inbox from Troy Henikoff, the Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, which closed the loop on this thought for me. Troy has been a key part of the development of the Chicago startup community and we’ve been good friends from the moment he first reached out to me about developing an accelerator in Chicago.
Troy reminded me about the Chicago Venture Summit, which is coming up on 10/14 and 10/15. The lineup looks incredible and includes keynotes from folks like Travis Kalanick (Uber), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco Chief Technology & Strategy Officer), Ted Leonsis (Revolution Partners and previous AOL CEO), and Peter Thiel. Not surprising, JB Pritzker is one of the leaders of the event. In the note that Troy sent me, there are confirmed attendees from VC firms such as Founders Fund, DFJ, NEA, GE Ventures, Motorola Ventures, Accel, Revolution, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Yes, it’s a serious event worth attending if you can.
Since I started thinking about Startup Communities in 2010, a few years before I wrote the book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, I believed the discussion about entrepreneurship would spread far and wide. If we could have the amazing things going on in Boulder that we were experiencing at the time, there was no reason every major city in the world couldn’t have a vibrant startup community. It’s a joy to see this developing fast, and in a powerful and sustainable way, in cities like Chicago and LA. Sure, there’s always been significant entrepreneurial activities in both cities, but the essence of the startup community in both places feels different – and more powerful – this time around.
I love origin stories. Yesterday at the kickoff of Techstars FounderCon, I stood on stage with David Cohen and David Brown as we went through the origin story of Techstars, followed by a build up of what has happened over the past seven amazing years. As the 50+ people working for Techstars stood on the stage at the end, I got chills. Afterwards I got feedback from a number of the 500 people in the audience that it was extremely useful context for them, many of whom joined the extended Techstars network in the past two years.
A few weeks ago, FG Press released the first book in its Techstars series titled No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur. It’s written by David Brown and is the origin story of David Brown and David Cohen’s first company Pinpoint Technologies.
If you recognize David Cohen’s name, but not David Brown’s, you have a new David in your world. Brown was one of the four co-founders of Techstars (with Cohen, me, and Jared Polis). A little over a year ago, he joined Techstars full time as one of the three managing partners – the other two being David Cohen and Mark Solon. Brown runs the organization day to day and Solon manages all the fund and capital formation activity.
While I’ve known Brown for seven years, Cohen and Brown have worked together for 25 years. Pinpoint was a self-funded company that was their first entrepreneurial endeavor. Like many other startups, it had many ups and downs but the David’s created a very successful, profitable business that was acquired by ZOLL (a Boston-based public company) in 1999. Brown stayed at ZOLL for a while, left, and then came back and ran ZOLL Data (the division based on Pinpoint) until last year when he finally left for good.
When I read the first draft of No Vision All Drive I immediately realized this was a powerful origin story. It shows the personal and professional development of Brown and Cohen as they grew from two guys trying to figure out how to start their business to leaders of a real company. Brown’s reflections on the experience are detailed and demonstrates his incredible talents as an operator. If you know Cohen, after reading this book, you understand why they are perfect partners and have worked so well together over the past 25 years.
It’s a delight to get to work with both of these guys. No Vision All Drive gave me deep insight into Brown and how to be effective working with him, as well as what to expect in the context of his leadership and management style. And it made me even more optimistic about the future of Techstars.
Our goal with the Techstars Series is to get out a series of books applicable to all entrepreneurs at an affordable price. So, instead of doing the default Kindle $9.99 price, or tying the Kindle price to the hardcover price, we are charging $4.95 for the Kindle version. We know there is no marginal cost to each incremental e-book so we want to provide it at a price that entrepreneurs won’t think twice about, which we pegged at the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino .
If you are interested in origin stories or just want to better understand the guys behind Techstars, I encourage you to grab a copy of No Vision All Drive: Memoirs of an Entrepreneur.
Today Techstars announced an “equity back guarantee” for any company that goes through the Techstars program starting in 2015.
We’ve been talking about this for a while. One of Techstars’ matras is #givefirst which builds off my “give before you get” philosophy that I highlight in my book Startup Communities as a key part to building a great startup community.
As we talked about this, we realized that we could apply this directly to Techstars. We periodically encounter founders during the selection process who question the value of Techstars. It’s not that they don’t value it, it’s that they aren’t sure it’ll be worth it. Our solution historically has been to introduce them to Techstars alumni, which almost always results in the founders understanding the value of the program and jumping in with both feet.
One day we started bouncing around the cliche “let’s put our money where our mouth is” which quickly morphed into “let’s put our equity where our mouth is.” We are extremely confident in the value of Techstars and know that after someone goes through Techstars, they value it, often much higher than the cost of the program in the equity that they’ve given us to participate in it.
So we decided to launch an equity back guarantee. Our terms for going through Techstars are unchanged, but if at the end of the program you aren’t delighted, you can ask for some or all of your equity back. The only requirement is that you have to give us detailed feedback on what you didn’t find useful about Techstars.
While I wish my lawyers, accountants, and investment bankers offered a money back guarantee, I accept that isn’t changing anytime soon. However, I encourage all accelerators and entrepreneurial service providers to consider offering this. After all, our mission is to help entrepreneurs.
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.