I saw an article about George Raveling recently in the Daily Stoic newsletter. Raveling – known as Coach Rav to many, has a pretty remarkable history. And an even better life philosophy that fits very nicely with #GiveFirst.
On his website, he has a page titled 23 Life Choices That Are In Your Control. It’s delightful and follows.
1. Be YOU, not them.
2. Do more, expect less.
3. Be positive, not negative.
4. Be the solution, not the problem.
5. Be a starter, not a stopper.
6. Question more, believe less.
7. Be a somebody, never a nobody.
8. Love more, hate less.
9. Give more, take less.
10. See more, look less.
11. Save more, spend less.
12. Listen more, talk less.
13. Walk more, sit less.
14. Read more, watch less.
15. Build more, destroy less.
16. Praise more, criticize less.
17. Clean more, dirty less.
18. Live more, do not just exist.
19. Be the answer, not the question.
20. Be a lover, not a hater.
21. Be a painkiller, not a pain giver.
22. Think more, react less.
23. Be more uncommon, less common.
If you just skimmed the list, I encourage you to go back and read it again. To slow down and really savor it, read each line out loud and then ponder what you are doing to make that choice on a daily basis.
I had a lot of fun at the Silicon Flatirons #GiveFirst conference last week and the smaller academic colloquium session the next day. It was a challenging topic, as we are simply exploring the idea of GiveFirst, how it works, and putting some scaffolding on the overall concept, both practically and intellectually.
My fireside chat with Sam Zell starts at 14:00. While we come at things with different styles and experiences, when I watched it again to reflect on it, I found some really interesting overlaps and new ideas that hadn’t occurred to me.
If GiveFirst is a construct that is interesting to you, I encourage you to spend some time soaking in this video. When my book about it comes out in 2019, I think I’ll be able to point back to this as the first real public discussion of the idea.
I got an email this morning from a close friend who asked how I reconcile a particular issue around the concept of #GiveFirst. Following is the setup from the email I got.
“I was thinking of you yesterday. I recently met with someone in town who was looking to connect. I took the meeting because, well, I always take such meetings. I’m just wired that way and you never know what good things can come from such random meetings.
So I love doing them. But yesterday the person I met with showed up with an agenda and, at the top of his list was “GiveFirst to <my organization> and <me>.” He had an agenda…he had an ask of me…but he wanted to “give first” by asking me how he could help me.
I think he misunderstands the mindset. And I think he’s not the only one. By opening up with that, he put me in a position of having to do something–respond to his inquiry–I didn’t really have any need to do.
Moreover, he inadvertently put me in debt to him from the beginning. “Before we begin, let me ask you, ‘How can I help you?’ ” While I don’t really have a lot of asks it still felt yucky, insincere, and manipulative.”
This is a chronic problem with understanding how to implement #GiveFirst. While well-intentioned, it shifts the burden of responsibility from the #GiveFirster to the Receiver. Ponder that for a second.
Here’s an example from my personal life. Amy and I do a lot of things for each other, all the time. But, imagine a situation where she’s overwhelmed, or tired, or in distress from something. If I show up at that moment and say, “How can I help,” I’m adding another thing for her to do to the mix. She is now responsible for figuring out what I can do to help her. If she knew this, she probably would have already asked me. Instead of helping, I’m merely adding another log to whatever fire is already burning.
Instead of asking someone how you can #GiveFirst to them or their company, you should take the opposite approach. Do your research before you meet. Understand what their (or their organizations goals) are. In a lot of cases, you can often figure out a short-term need that they have. Then, when you meet, have a prepared mind for the conversation and listen to where it goes. In real-time, ofter to do something that fits with what you are hearing, or what you expect the goals or short-term needs are.
This doesn’t have to be an explicit part of the conversation (e.g. “I’m going to #GiveFirst to you by doing the following.”) Instead; it needs to be completely non-transaction – you are not doing something to earn anything, including brownie points. You are, instead, operating in a #GiveFirst framework, where you are willing to put energy into something without expecting anything in return. Ideally, you’ll just go #GiveFirst and do some stuff that is helpful to the other party. Not once, but as part of establishing and developing a deeper relationship that comes from a non-transaction perspective.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of mechanizing the #GiveFirst philosophy. It’s explicitly called #GiveFirst and not #TellMeWhatICanDoToHelpYou to stimulate you – the giver – to do the work to figure out what is helpful.
I’m participating in an event at CU Boulder (sponsored by Silicon Flatirons) on 10/18/18 called Community, Creativity, and #GiveFirst.
#GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in The Era of Entrepreneurship is the name of an upcoming book of mine. It’s also the mantra of Techstars.
In addition to a few of the usual cast of characters (me, Brad Bernthal, Jason Mendelson, Nicole Glaros) and some CU folks, a number of interesting people are joining us including Sam Zell, Stephanie Copeland, AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Brian Broughman, Sonali Shah, and Krista Marks.
The first panel is titled #GiveFirst and is a moderated chat between me and Sam Zell. I promise it won’t be dull.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, already view #GiveFirst (which I first talked about in my book Startup Communities in the section “Give Before You Get”) as part of your life, or just want to engage in a stimulating SIlicon Flatirons sponsored afternoon, come join us.
Google Boulder recently did a phenomenal thing. They recently gave a gift of over $2 million to CU Boulder, which included free office space for NCWIT for the next six years (valued at $1.3 million.) As of a few weeks ago, NCWIT now has a great long-term home in an older Google office on 26th Street in Boulder off of the CU Campus.
The head of Google Boulder (I think his official title in Googlespeak is “Engineering Site Director”) is Scott Green. I’ve known Scott since shortly after I moved to Boulder in 1995. He was an early employee at Email Publishing (which became MessageMedia), my very first Boulder-based angel investment. After MessageMedia, he spent some time working at Return Path (where I’ve been an investors since 2000) early in its life before moving to @Last (which we were not investors in, but were fans of since some of our friends, including Brian Makare (the co-founder of Email Publishing) and Mark Solon (then of Highway 12, now at Techstars) were investors.) While Scott and I don’t spend a lot of time together, we’ve both been part of the evolution of the Boulder startup community going back to the late 1990s.
In 2006, Google bought @Last (makers of SketchUp). That was the beginning of Google’s presence in Boulder, which is now around 1,000 people on a new, very nice, and well-integrated campus in the middle of town. Scott and the Google team have always been great corporate citizens of the startup community, offering up their larger event space on a regular basis, participating in, and sponsoring, many of the local startup events over the years, and generally just being a constructive and healthy part of the mix. Google’s continued expanded presence in Boulder is a positive reflection on the overall startup community and their new campus is a really nice addition to our little city in the mountains.
NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology) has long been a hidden gem of Boulder. I got involved shortly after it was founded in 2004 and became the board chair in 2005 (which I served as until I resigned all my non-profit board positions at the end of last year.) I’m still deeply involved and it is a major initiative of the Anchor Point Foundation (the foundation that Amy and I run.)
Physical office space at CU Boulder has always been a struggle for NCWIT. When the organization was small, it fit nicely in a corner of the CU Roser ATLAS Center on the second floor. Amy and I were appreciative of this and sponsored the bathrooms on this floor of ATLAS. As NCWIT grew, they crammed into a small space, then overflowed it, expanded a little, but then lost it in a mysterious space shuffle that I’ve never really understood. Eventually, NCWIT moved over to some old space in the engineering building, but the space was poorly configured, had no cell signal, and wasn’t secure.
At the beginning of 2017, Lucy Sanders (NCWIT CEO) and I started looking for other space in Boulder. We tried to get different space on CU’s campus but were unsuccessful. We had a few near misses with commercial space, but either the economics didn’t work out or the space wasn’t right. Last summer, Google Boulder engaged as their new campus was opening up. A few weeks ago, NCWIT moved into their new, long-term home.
I’m incredibly appreciative for what Google Boulder has done here for NCWIT. It makes me extremely happy to see a #GiveFirst approach from Google in our startup community, along with the extensive support for NCWIT. It’s always nice to be part of an organization that is on the receiving end of this kind of generosity, especially one as deserving as NCWIT.
Scott, Google, and the rest of your team at Google Boulder – THANK YOU!
I’ve been working on my next book, #GiveFirst, again. There’s a lot in it about the Techstars Mentor Manifesto and how to be an effective mentor.
Yesterday, I got a note from Jay Batson, longtime Techstars Boston mentor and now the Mentor-in-Residence for the program, asking if I had ever compiled the lists I posts I wrote about the Techstars Mentor Manifesto.
I hadn’t. He had conveniently done it in a Google doc so it was easy for me to list out the posts with links. They follow.
17/18: Be Challenging/Robust but Never Destructive (No post)
18/18: Have Empathy. Remember That Startups Are Hard (No post)
Jay also reminded me that I hadn’t written posts on #17 and #18. They are now on my list to do. Thanks, Jay!
It’s the summer of 2001. The NASDAQ peak is in the rear view mirror. Many Internet companies are struggling. I’m sitting at the breakfast table at Len Fassler’s house in Harrison, New York drinking a cup of coffee and chewing on a bagel.
Len and I co-founded Interliant (originally Sage Networks) with Steve Maggs and Rajat Bhargava in 1996. We took Interliant public in 1999 on the second attempt (the SEC didn’t clear the filing until a week after the end of the first road show, our first of many misfires with Merrill Lynch, who was our lead banker.) At the peak in the spring of 2000 Interliant hit $55 / share and was worth over $3 billion. By breakfast in the summer of 2001, the stock was trading under $1 / share.
I was exhausted. In addition to my role as co-chairman of Interliant (Len was my co-chairman), I was also a partner at Mobius Venture Capital, sitting on over 25 boards, including five non-US companies. I was on three other public company boards, including being co-chairman of MessageMedia with Jerry Poch, who was Len’s partner in their previous company (AmeriData Technologies – which had bought my first company – Feld Technologies – in 1993). I’d known Len and Jerry for almost eight years and was deep in it with each of them in parallel universes, as MessageMedia was also trading at under $1 / share that summer after reaching a high of $15 / share (and a $1.5 billion market cap) in the spring of 2000.
Back to breakfast. I’m chewing on my bagel staring out the kitchen window wondering what new version of a fucked up shit storm I was going to experience during the inevitable long day that would unfold. I no longer remember why I was at Len’s house that day, but I often stayed at his house when I was spending time at Interliant’s headquarters which was in Purchase, NY. I do remember that the coffee was hot.
Len walked in with a bounce in his step like he had every time I saw him. He stopped, looked at me, and said “what’s wrong?”
I looked up at him and said, “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night. I know today is going to suck. I don’t feel like I can catch a break.”
He looked at me, walked over slowly, stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Suit up. They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you. We’ll get through it.”
He then gave me a hug from behind. He patted me on the chest and went to get a cup of coffee. I sat there silently for a moment, stood up, turned around, and smiled at Len.
“Thanks,” I said, from the bottom of my heart.
This time he gave me a real hug.
That was the moment when everything changed for me. Len had already had an extremely successful business career. His last company – the one he built with Jerry Poch that had acquired my first company – was bought in 1996 by GE Capital for $500 million. He didn’t have to co-found Interliant with me, Steve, and Rajat. He certainly didn’t have to get up every day and go to the office, which by the summer of 2001 was a real business battle on multiple fronts.
But he did. With a smile. Not just for him, but for everyone he worked with.
Since I’d first met Len in the spring of 1993, he was beloved by almost everyone around him. Sure, every now and then someone didn’t fall head over heals for him, but the number of people who would follow him anywhere, do anything for him, and work tirelessly for whatever he was involved in were endless.
I was one of them.
In that moment, I realized why. Ever since I had met Len, he gives more than he gets. The amount of energy he put into me, and his relationship with me, was unexpected by me when he bought Feld Technologies in 1993. I immediately felt a connection to him and his partner Jerry, which is part of what caused me to ultimately agree to sell Feld Technologies to them. As time passed, I felt loyal to Jerry, and learned an enormous amount from him, but I loved Len.
In the summer of 2001, I felt guilty about dragging Len into the mess that had become Interliant. When I’d mention this to him, he’d tell me to let it go – it was his choice to get involved. As the shit got deeper, there was no time to feel guilty as all our energy was aimed at trying to save this company that was clearly failing.
There wasn’t a single day that Len didn’t give it his all. Even after the point at which he knew there was no way he’d see a dime from Interliant. We had both invested money up front along with a huge amount of time and personal credibility into the company. We had each hired friends, bought companies from people we knew (and had gotten to know), and spent late nights doing unnatural acts to get the company to the point where, in 2000, it was doing $50 million of revenue a quarter and seemed to be a very successful Internet business.
One year later we were on a steep downhill slope to a failed business. But Len kept showing up every day and doing everything he knew how to do for all the people still involved. Including me.
As we got in his car to drive to Purchase, with the ever-present smell of cigars that Len smoked on walks and the end of the day, I once again told him thanks. I didn’t realize it yet, but that morning fundamentally shaped the way I would think about the rest of my working life.
They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.
And, if that’s true, why do you do it? And how do you do it?
Today’s #GivingThanks is to David Cohen, one of the founders and co-CEO of Techstars. If David has done something that has touched your life is a positive way and you want to give thanks to him, make a donation online to the Techstars Foundation.
I met David on one of my random days in 2006. I can’t remember who introduced us, but David reminds me that it took him four months to get a meeting with me. He knew he had 15 minutes so he got right down to it as is his nature. We were in my old Superior office (the one about the liquor store where I met Lucy Sanders and so many other great people for the first time.) We said hello, David introduced himself to me, and we sat down. David then slid something across the table and sat silently while I read it.
It was a folded piece of paper that looked liked it had been printed on a color printer at a Kinkos. I opened it in its three-fold glory and read an overview of a thing called TechStars (yes – I immediately noticed the CamelCase) with a logo at the top that closely resembles today’s logo. I had an immediate positive reaction.
When I looked up, David gave me a little more background. He told me we were co-investors in a few companies as angel investors. He then explained why he wasn’t enjoying being an angel investor the way he was then doing it. Remember, it’s 2006 and angel investing is not trendy. In fact, early stage investing in general is in the dog house for many investors, both angels and VCs, as they are still remembering the pain from the collapse of the Internet bubble. While we had at least two angel groups in the Denver/Boulder area in 2006, they were more of a combination of a cocktail party combined with an entrepreneur torture chamber. Founders came in, pitched a bunch of angel investors, got ask a bunch of questions, went away, but rarely ended up with any investment. David had participated but realized that very few angels were writing checks and, when they did, the entrepreneurs didn’t get engaged investors.
David had a vision to change that. He said he wanted to raise about $200,000 to get it started. He was personally putting in $80,000. At about the ten minute mark, I told him that as long as he wasn’t a flake or a crook, I was in for $50,000. He then told me that David Brown (now co-CEO of Techstars), who had been his partner in their first company (Pinpoint Software), would likely do $50,000. I said that was awesome and I’d make a few phone calls and see if I could round up the rest.
After David left, I called Jared Polis. I had met Jared a decade earlier (via an introduction from my first business partner, Dave Jilk) and we had become good friends and co-investors in a handful of companies. I told Jared I was investing $50,000 in a new thing called Techstars that I’d like to see if he wanted to invest in with me. He responded, “Sure, count me in for $50,000. What is it?” And, like that, we had raised the money for the first Techstars Boulder program which ran in 2007.
A decade later, I’m comfortable asserting that Techstars has had a significant positive impact on entrepreneurship around the world. It’s been one of my greatest life pleasures to be involved in it.
David, thank you for showing up in my office and inviting me to be part of Techstars. Here’s the first promotion video, which reminds me how far we’ve come.
But we have only begun. Techstars, which now runs 25 Techstars accelerator programs around the world each year, also runs over 1,000 Startup Weekends a year and 40 Startup Weeks a year. As part of our experience over the last decade, we became immersed in the issue of diversity in entrepreneurship. My work with the National Center for Women & Information Technology informed and inspired this, along with our creation of programs like Patriot Boot Camp and Rising Stars. And, the Techstars mantra of #GiveFirst, which builds on the philosophy I talked about in Startup Communities of “Give Before You Get”, has become deeply embedded in our value system.
At the end of last year, we took this to another level by creating the Techstars Foundation. The foundation mission is straightforward – to improve diversity in entrepreneurship. Our initial funding was provided by the Techstars founders and a few other people close to Techstars. Since then, we’ve done a major matching campaign that Amy and I funded, a partnership with BetaBrand that generated $85,000 in contributions, and several other fundraisers. We are closing in on the foundation having $1 million in the bank, which is an exciting start for us.
We made our first round of grants earlier this year to five organizations: Astia, Patriot Boot Camp, Defy Ventures, Change Catalyst, and Gaza Sky Geeks. I personally adopted Defy Ventures, went to prison for the day, learned an enormous amount about myself in the process, and subsequently made a significant commitment to Defy.
David is now one of my closest friends and my experience working with him and the team at Techstars is one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve done. David – thank you.
Today’s #GivingThanks post is for my dear friend Jerry Colonna. When I make a list of non-family members and non-partners who I would want to be stranded on a desert island with, Jerry is at the top of the list.
Before I tell a story, if you want to participate in #GivingThanks to Jerry, please make a donation to Naropa University where Jerry is the chair of the board. I was going to try to create some kind of complicated matching donation scheme since I hadn’t made a gift to Naropa yet this year but I decided to just gift them $10,000 (which I just did now through the website) so I encourage you to support at any level if you want to participate in my not-so-complicated match.
I met Jerry in 1995. I was chair of NetGenesis, which was the first angel investment I’d made after selling Feld Technologies (my first company). NetGenesis had raised some money and had created three different products – net.Forms (a web form manager), net.Thread (a web threaded discussion board), and net.Analysis (a weblog analysis tool). While our customer for each product was the same (a webmaster or a company trying to build a website), we were having trouble leading with all three products. Allaire was eating our lunch on .Form, a company called eShare was picking us apart on .Thread, and this new company called WebTrends was torturing us on .Analysis. A year earlier, none of this had existed – now we realized we needed to focus on one product. We chose net.Analysis and went about selling the other two products to different companies.
Jerry had just invested in eShare. Somehow Raj Bhargava (the NetGenesis CEO) had connected with Jim Tito (the eShare CEO) and worked a deal to sell him net.Thread. NetGenesis got some of eShares equity, eShare got the net.Thread product, and I joined the eShare board.
That started a 20+ year relationship between me and Jerry that I comfortably use the word “love” to describe.
Jerry became partners with Fred Wilson and they started Flatiron Partners. We all started working with SoftBank as affiliates (along with Rich Levandov). I eventually co-founded SoftBank Technology Partners (which became Mobius Venture Capital) and SoftBank (the corporation) became a 50% LP in Flatiron with Chase. We made more investments together. As Jerry and Fred’s relationship evolved, so did mine (with each of them) as we had different kinds of professional and personal connections.
I remember a moment in what must have been 1999, sitting at Jerry’s desk in NY in a dark office (I never really like office lighting so I work without it on and it had turned into evening in NY.) I was trying to get a deal done and it was a stressful mess. The tension of the Internet bubble bursting hadn’t started yet, but I was already exhausted and negotiating basically all the time with everyone about everything. I hung up the phone and put my head down on Jerry’s desk. I wasn’t crying, but I was probably in a parallel emotional zone. Jerry walked in the room, saw me, and wrapped his whole body around me and just covered me up. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget – total, compete emotional intimacy in the context of support. I’m sure he was feeling the same kind of stress and in the moment we just hugged. And then I cried.
Jerry has a super power – he makes grown men (and women) cry in a business context. But that’s the super power – it’s not a business context, it’s life, and he helps us understand that in powerful, unique, and profound ways.
In 2002 Jerry retired from venture capital and went on his own personal journey for meaning. He was an extremely successful VC but woke up one day hating the work, feeling unfulfilled, and struggling with what became a deep depression. I was fighting my way through my own dark shit then so we didn’t see each other often, but when we did it was extremely helpful to me. There was an immediate sense of comfort, of love, of empathy, and of understanding. It didn’t matter what we talked about – we were just there, together, in the moment.
Today, Jerry runs a CEO coaching company called Reboot. Their mission – front and center on their website – says it all.
“We believe that in work is the possibility of the full realization of human potential. Work does not have to destroy us. Work can be the way we achieve our fullest self. Reboot is a coaching company. We help entrepreneurs and their teams deal with the internal ups and downs of entrepreneurship and support the growth they need to improve their performance and their life.”
I believe that Jerry is the best CEO coach on this particular planet. I’ve seen, and experienced, his magic many times. He’s found his purpose in life, and it’s wonderful to see him practice it every day.
Jerry also moved to Boulder last year. That means I see him a lot more in person that I used to. I still have to make a mental adjustment when Amy and I run into him and Ali on the Pearl Street Mall heading off to different restaurants for dinner, but an enormous smile always crosses my face when it happens.
Jerry – thank you for being you. And for everything you do in this world.
Next up in my #GivingThanks series – in appreciation for people during Thanksgiving who have had a profound impact on me – is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Unlike the last post about the Jason Mendelson Entrepreneurial Award Fund, I’m not going to bury the lede – go here if you’d like to make a financial gift to NCWIT as part of #GivingThanks.
I met Lucy in 2004. We were introduced by Terry Gold (I was on the board at Gold Systems). Terry has always been a great connector so without knowing anything about Lucy I said “sure” and we had a meeting in my old office in Superior above a liquor store and Old Chicago Pizza.
In the first few minutes, Lucy explained her plans for a new organization she had created called National Center for Women & Information Technology. Her goal was straightforward – get more girls and women involved in computer science. As someone who has been involved in the tech industry since 1987, there was an obvious gender issue – all you needed to do was walk around a software company and look at the engineers. But Lucy captured my attention when she went further than the issue of gender parity by saying in the first five minutes something like “It’s an issue of long term competitiveness and innovation. In the US, the demand for computer scientists and programmers is growing at a pace that will dramatically outstrip the supply of labor unless we get more women involved, starting now.”
NCWIT’s mission has evolved nicely over the years but has stayed true to that statement from Lucy a dozen years ago. Today, NCWIT formally describes itself as follows:
“The National Center for Women & Information Technology is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization chartered in 2004 by the National Science Foundation. NCWIT is a “collective impact” effort, a community of more than 700 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase girls’ and women’s participation in technology and computing. NCWIT helps organizations recruit, retain, and advance women from K-12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers by providing support, evidence, and action. NCWIT is the only national organization focused on women’s participation in computing across the entire ecosystem: K-12 through college education, and academic to corporate and entrepreneurial careers.”
Lucy asked me to be on the NCWIT board on the spot and a year later I agreed to be chair of the board, a role that I’ve cherished over the years.
I’m fortunate in that I was ready to engage in the problem. My views on gender are heavily influenced by two powerful women in my life – my mom (Cecelia Feld) and my wife (Amy Batchelor). I watched my parents act as completely equal partners in their relationship and, as a son to a woman I respect immensely, I never thought of gender inequality as a child. For the past 26 years, I’ve been in a relationship with an equal partner (Amy) and notice gender issues everywhere in our society. Amy and I talk about it regularly, take action on a number of fronts around it, and work together to address issues when we see or experience them.
So when I first met Lucy I had a prepared and receptive mind. But, I didn’t really know or understand things beyond an anecdotal state. Over the past dozen years, I’ve learned more about gender issues, unconscious bias, power dynamics in organizations, harassment, and long term solutions from Lucy and my work with NCWIT than I have from anything else. I’ve had a great partner in Amy to talk about many of the issues that I’ve learned about, as I go beyond just understanding to taking action. And, with Lucy, I’ve gotten to work on this with an outstanding partner leading an organization I’m incredibly proud of.
In the past few years, we’ve finally started to see the conversation around gender in computing as fact-based, instead of anecdote-based, discussion. Some awesome female leaders are taking things to the next level. We still have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful that in a decade we’ll look back and feel like gender issues in tech are no longer an issue.
Lucy – thank you for everything you do – every day – on this issue. If this is an important issue to you, and you want to join in on #GivingThanks, please make a donation to NCWIT to support their work.