I had a great week last week. Most of the companies I’m an investor in are doing well and are having strong Q2s. A few, like Zynga, are absolutely killing it (see the Zynga video on CBS News titled SF-Based Startup Thriving, Hiring In Down Economy.) As one might expect, I’ve got a few companies that are struggling, but that’s the nature of the beast and I’m really proud of all the folks in those companies as they work their butts off to get to a happy place.
I was on the east coast for part of the week at TechStars Boston and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. I spent time with each of the TechStars Boston teams as well as all of the software teams at YEI. I had a great time at both and was particularly impressed by three of the YEI companies – YouRenew, Cube Knowledge, and The Green Bride Guide.
This was my first intense set of time with the TechStars Boston companies. They are three weeks into the program and I am super excited with most of their progress. As TechStars is a mentor-driven program, I heard a lot about various mentor engagement from the teams, along with who their favorite mentors were, the kind of advice they were getting, and how they were dealing with conflicting advice. After spending time with each of the teams, I noticed some patterns and thought I’d synthesize them into a few pieces of advice. This advice applies to any first time entrepreneur who is interacting with mentors, but is especially aimed at those in programs that have organized mentor activity such as YEI, fbFund Rev, and DreamIT Ventures, all programs that I’m spending time with this summer besides TechStars.
After three weeks, decide who your lead mentors are: While you will likely have more than three mentors that are working with you, by the end of the third week you’ll be able to determine who is the most engaged and will help you the most. While you might think you could handle “as many as you can have access to”, focusing the majority of your energy on around three will be more than adequate. This doesn’t mean that you should blow off the other mentors – you should engage with as many as you can. But realize that there will be two categories of mentors in your world – those that become an extended part of your team and those that are fans and help you when they can.
Don’t get whiplashed by conflicting advice: By definition you are going to get conflicting advice. Your job is to listen, ask questions, synthesize it, and make decisions. If you take Monday’s feedback, implement it, hear different feedback from a different mentor on Wednesday, try to change direction, and get different advice from a third mentor on Friday, you can find yourself chasing your tail. Be deliberate in collecting information, checking for other mentors reaction to feedback, decide a path, and then hit it hard.
Close the loop with your mentors: At the minimum, communicate with all of the mentors you are working with (not just the lead mentors) at least once a week. Make sure they know the decisions you’ve made and why, especially if they contradict some of the feedback you have been getting. Most mentors don’t need to “be right”, but they do appreciate being listened to.
Divide and conquer: Not everyone in the company needs to go to every meeting with every mentor. While it’s probably useful for everyone to meet with the lead mentors, a key skill to learn as a team is how to divide up responsibilities and interactions, especially between “development” and “business”. For example, on a team of three (two developers, one business person), consider having the business person meet with the mentors while the devs stay heads down and code. Then, have a daily meeting as a team to discuss any new things that have come up from the mentors – limit this meeting to a fixed amount of time (say, 30 minutes). This will be massively more efficient, will help you learn how to communicate between yourselves, and will enable the devs to actually get some code written.
Be proactive: It’s your job to engage the mentors. They are there for you. If you wait for them to come to you, you’ll get a fraction of the value you could get by going to them.
I’ve got plenty more where these came from, but they are the ones that jumped to the top of the list after reflecting on my week. I hope they are helpful.
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.
Ben Casnocha is hard at work at his book titled “My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley”; which Jossey-Bass (part of John Wiley & Sons) is publishing this spring. I read a draft over Thanksgiving and I predict this book will end up becoming a New York Times bestseller – it is extraordinary (just like Ben.) Ben has asked a number of his friends to write short essays (called “Braintrusts”) to include in the book. I was honored that he asked me to write one on Mentors. Following is my “Reflections on Mentors” which hopefully will make it into the book when it’s published this spring.
My first mentor was my Dad. I remember going for a long walk with him near our house in Dallas when I was 13 where he actively stepped out of “dad” mode and went into “business mentor mode” for the first time. Part of the brilliance of his mentoring is that he realized I needed non-parental mentors, so he introduced me to a patient of his, Gene Scott, who had been an executive at several computer companies in the 1960s and 1970s. As a teenager, I had a monthly dinner with “Mr. Scott” and I got my first taste of how rewarding a mentoring relationship can be.
In college, I started two companies which both failed, but my mentors (and my Dad) stayed close to me and helped me learn, struggle through the businesses, and accept failure.
In my first successful company, Feld Technologies, one of our early clients – Stewart Forbes – became another influential mentor. While he taught me a lot directly, Stewart taught me how to learn by actively working with my mentors, versus just observing them. I learned that an active mentoring relationship – regular communications, a two-way exchange of ideas, and even some disagreements – is much more effective than a “lecture style” relationship.
When I was in my early 20s, my uncle Charlie Feld entered the scene. Charlie was the CIO at Frito-Lay and one of the most respected CIO’s in industry. Whenever Charlie was in Boston, he invited me along, unashamed to have his nephew in tow. He taught me to always be willing to include younger people in your activities so they can learn. And with his help, I learned a lot.
Not all my mentors were business people. Eric von Hippel, my graduate advisor at MIT, pushed me to figure out deeper lessons about life. When I dropped out of a Ph.D. program, got divorced, and sold my first company – all in the same year – Eric was there for me day and night to help me work through my first major personal crisis and determine how I wanted to respond to it. Eric taught me how to discover what I really wanted to do with my life, and then spend all my time doing it. Without a mentor, it would have taken me a much longer time to answer this critical question. Eric may have been in academia, but he could still play “life coach” to me, a good reminder that sometimes the best mentors guide you in areas outside their official domain of expertise.
When I sold my first company at age 27, I acquired two great mentors – Len Fassler and Jerry Poch. In addition to solid business advice, Len taught me how to be gracious in every situation. He emphasized the value of sticking with something through to the very end, whether good or bad. Jerry taught me how to always be direct and clear, no matter what the news. Even if I hadn’t gotten a dime for my first company, Len and Jerry’s lessons about graciousness, persistence, and candor would have more than paid for themselves many times over.
When I look back on these and all the other mentors I’ve had (and continue to have today) and the people whom I now mentor, one thing stands out: the rare, but brilliant moment when the relationship shifts, the distinction between mentor and mentee dissolves, and you become “co-mentors”. Even if you aren’t “peers,” the learning becomes bi-directional. Everyone in a mentoring relationship should strive for this equilibrium, because it is here where the greatest learning occurs.
It’s easy to take. It’s harder to give. The value, and joy, you derive from a mentoring relationship corresponds with the effort you put into it. When there’s a balance between the two the relationship can be extraordinary. Think about what you are learning from your mentors. Even more importantly, think about what you are teaching them.
Two mentors in one of the Techstars programs were both people who I knew well. They hated each other as a result of being co-founders of companies that had been bitter rivals.
Each company was successful, but their paths ended up being very different. These two co-founders hadn’t interacted with each other, but the CEOs of each of their companies had some rough interactions. As a result, each of these co-founders thought the other was an evil person.
Each of the co-founders was technical, extremely smart, and capable. Not surprisingly, they gravitated toward mentoring the same companies.
After a few very awkward moments, I encouraged the two co-founders to let their pasts be history and to move on. I knew them each pretty well and expected they’d like each other and get along if they had an opportunity to reset things. Being mentors to the same company gave them this opportunity.
It turned out that they loved working together. At some point, the co-founders talked about their past. They had never actually met, and each realized that their emotions were a function of the hostile relationship between the CEOs. Since they were channeling these emotions, they realized this was a self-limiting perspective.
They became friends. In a few cases, they’ve been mentors for the same company. It’s been a great example of moving beyond whatever your past is and accepting each other as a mentor in a new shared context.
A key ingredient of Techstars accelerator programs is our experienced and engaged mentor community. Mentors embrace the Techstars “Give First” philosophy by offering founders their time, advice, and connections. We treat mentorship seriously – you can read about it in our Mentor Manifesto and my blog series on the mentor manifesto. And, my book Give First, coming out at the end of 2017, will cover mentorship in depth.
Our global network now consists of over 5,000 mentors, including many successful Techstars alumni. As Techstars continues to selectively expand into new geographies and industry verticals, our mentors are important as ever.
Serving as a mentor is intrinsically rewarding on multiple levels. Guiding founders through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship creates a deep sense of contribution. It provides an outlet for mentors to engage in their local startup communities and keep a pulse on emerging technologies. It’s a chance to learn by teaching, and engage with a new generation of entrepreneurs. And it’s fun.
Beyond the intrinsic rewards, Techstars has been considering creative ways to recognize our mentors while deepening their relationships with founders. Today we’re happy to announce a new partnership with AngelList to offer Techstars mentors and alumni an exclusive opportunity to invest early in accelerator companies. Our first two pilot funds will be the 2017 city programs in Austin and Boston, launching on January 23rd. The AngelList funds will give mentors and alumni early investment access while providing companies with additional early stage capital.
At Foundry Group, we learned a lot by running our own FG Angels syndicate. AngelList syndicates helps enable seed stage investing at scale. We believe in the model and its power to further enhance the Techstars network.
If you are a Techstars mentor or alumni founder and would like to learn more about the Techstars AngelList funds, or an experienced entrepreneur or tech executive interested in becoming a Techstars mentor, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m hanging out with Morris Wheeler and his family for a few days in Cleveland. I first met Morris through my friend Howard Diamond, currently the CEO of MobileDay (which I’m on the board of). Both Morris and Howard are extraordinary Techstars mentors, so I was motivated this morning to knock out another post in my Deconstructing The Mentor Manifesto series as foreplay for me starting to work on my next book, #GiveFirst.
When we started Techstars in 2006, the concept of a mentor was very fuzzy. There were many people who called themselves “advisors” to startups, including a the entire pantheon on service providers. While the word mentor existed, it was usually a 1:1 relationship, where an individual had a “mentor”. It was also more prevalent in corporate America, where to make your way up the corporate ladder you needed a “mentor”, “sponsor”, or a “rabbi.”
We decided to use the word “mentor” to describe the relationship between the participants in the Boulder startup community who were working with the founders and companies that went through Techstars. We had our first program in Boulder in 2007 and had about 50 mentors. Many were local Boulder entrepreneurs, a few were service providers who were particularly active in the startup community (including a few investors), and some were non-Boulder entrepreneurs such as Dick Costolo (ex-Feedburner – then at Google) and Don Loeb (ex-Feedburner – also then at Google, now at Techstars as VP Corporate Development). Basically, I reached out to all my friends and said “would you be a mentor for this new Techstars thing we are doing?”
At the time, we had no real clue what the relationship between mentor and founder would be. We knew that we wanted real engagement – at least 30 minutes per week – rather than just an “advisor name on a list.” We expected that engaging local mentors would be easier than non-local mentors. We defined rules of engagement around what mentoring meant, which did not preclude early investment, but did preclude charging any fees during the mentoring period.
Over time, we realized – and figured out – a number of things. When I talk about the early days of Techstars, remember that the concept of a “mentor-driven accelerator” didn’t exist and that the idea of an accelerator was still in its invention phase.
One of the biggest lessons was encapsulated in this part of the mentor manifesto. As mentorship became a thing, we suddenly had a supply of mentors that overwhelmed us. Everyone wanted to be a mentor. In 2008, we knew a little about what was effective and what wasn’t, so we continued to try to be inclusive of anyone who wanted to be a mentor, although I’m sure we blew this in plenty of cases. But we started seeing lots of mentors who did a single flyby meeting with the program, but never really engaged with any of the founders or companies in a meaningful way.
It probably took us until 2011 to really understand this and put some structure around it. By now, we had programs in multiple cities and managing directors who had different styles for engaging the local mentor community. And, mentorship was no longer a fuzzy word – it has shifted over into trendy-language-land and everyone was calling themselves a mentor, even if they weren’t. And being a mentor for a program like Techstars suddenly started appearing as a job role on LinkedIn.
Today we’ve got deep clarity on what makes for effective mentorship. And, more importantly, what makes a mentor successful and additive to an accelerator. A fundamental part of this is a commitment to engage. Really engage. As in spend time with the founders and the companies. It doesn’t have to be all of them – but it has to be deep, real, and with a regular cadence (at least weekly) over the three month program.
If you aren’t ready or able to commit, that’s totally cool. Don’t be a mentor, but you can still engage with the program and the companies through the philosophy I’ve talked about many times of “being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage” (principle three of the Boulder Thesis from Startup Communities).
And yes, this one is a hat tip to Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.”
It’s been a while since I wrote a post deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. The last one I wrote was number 12 of 18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know. Since I’m now working on the first draft of my next book #GiveFirst (or maybe it’ll be called Give First, or GiveFirst – I haven’t decided yet) it’s time to get my shit together and write the last six posts.
Throughout Techstars, we tell the founders that “it’s your company.” The implication of this is that they make the decisions about what to do. Everything they hear from mentors is just data.
A lot of mentors are successful CEOs. As CEOs, they are used to being in control. However, in the context of being a mentor, they don’t control anything. The best they can do is be a guide.
Interestingly, the best investors understand this. One of the lines my partners at Foundry Group use regular is that we only want to make one decision about a company – whether or not we support the CEO. If we support the CEO, we work for her. If we don’t support the CEO, we need to do something about this, which doesn’t necessarily mean fire the CEO.
In the context of being a mentor, you still get to make one decision, but it’s a different one. You get to decide whether or not you want to keep being a mentor. Assuming you do, your job is to support the founders, no matter what.
Ponder the following situation. The company has three founders. While one of them is CEO, it’s not clear that the right founder is the CEO. In addition, two of the founders (the CEO/founder and one other founder) are struggling with the third founder.
It would be easy to size up the situation and tell the founders what to do. But that’s not your job as a mentor. Instead, your job is to guide them to an understanding of the situation. The best mentors will invest time in each founder, keeping an open mind about what the fundamental problems are. You’ll surface the issues, guiding the founders to understand that there are real issues, what they are, help them talk about them, and help them work through them to a resolution or a better situation.
You won’t try to solve the problems. That’s not your job as a mentor. But you will be a guide. At some point, it will be appropriate, as a guide, to say what you would do if you found yourself in a similar situation. But, as a great guide, you won’t force this outcome, nor will you be judgmental if the founders go down a different path.
Remember – you get to make one decision – whether or not you want to keep being a mentor.
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 am delighted to see the addition of several new mentors for the 2008 edition of TechStars including Jeff Clavier (SoftTech VC), Matt Mullenweg (Automattic / WordPress.com), Dick Costolo (FeedBurner/Google), Eric Marcouller (MyBlogLog/Yahoo), Jeff Nolan (NewsGator), and Josh Hug (Shelfari). They join the incredible list of 50+ mentors for 2008 just waiting to help your new company this summer.
Eight of the ten companies from last summer are now profitable or have been funded beyond TechStars. Based on the applications and interest we have seen so far, this summer looks like it may turn out to be even more exciting.
Last night we had the Techstars Boulder Mentor Kickoff dinner. It’s an annual tradition at Techstars – we have a dinner for all mentors before we start the program. It’s a meet and greet for all mentors in the upcoming program, a great way to reconnect with friends, an intro to the companies in the upcoming program, and a reminder (and celebration) of the role of a mentor in Techstars.
Nicole Glaros, the Techstars Boulder managing director, held a great kickoff event at the Bohemian Biergarten. I ate too much Spätzle (man – that stuff has a lot of calories in it) but otherwise had an awesome time. I was especially gratified to see a number of new mentors for this year’s program. One of our goals with Techstars is to continuously expand the network, and bringing in and engaging new mentors in each program is a key part of that.
Given the new mentors, Nicole spent a few minutes going through the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. It reminded me of the importance of clearly defining what a mentor is and how a mentor can optimally interact with a startup, especially a very early stage one or one consisting of first time entrepreneurs.
Over the next six weeks I’m going to write 18 posts – going much deeper on each of the 18 items on the mentor manifesto. When we started Techstars, the word “mentor” was rarely used, typically referred to a single “mentor” that person had, and often connoted a very one-up / one-down type of “guidance relationship.” For those of you in legal or investment banking professions, the equivalent word was often “rabbi” – it was someone who looked after you, covered your ass, gave you advice, and helped you on your career.
We meant “mentor” in a different way. We’ve learned an enormous amount about what does and doesn’t work. What’s helpful or harmful. And how a mentor can get the most out of their side of the relationship. Today, it’s trendy to be a “mentor” especially to a startup. Unlike before, when mentor meant something very precise and narrow, it now is referred to a wide range of relationships and interactions.
Hopefully the next 18 posts, and the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, will help make the definition of mentors and the implementation of mentorship, at least in the context of high growth startups, precise in a new and ever more powerful way.