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.
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!
Several people recommended Ray Dalio’s book Principles to me. I read it a few days ago and thought it was spectacular. I’ve gone out and bought a copy for each of my partners and I recommend that every VC, as well as anyone who is building an organization of any kind, buy and read it.
Dalio is famous for his extremely successful firm Bridgewater Associates which is known for its goal of achieving excellence in their work and their relationships through radical truth and radical transparency. The TED Talk below is a good summary, but the book is worth reading in total.
As a bonus, watch Dalio’s great explanation of How the Economic Machine Works.
As I get older, I’m reflecting more on the last 30 years of what has worked for me – and what hasn’t worked – as I codify my own business philosophy around the idea of #GiveFirst. As part of that, it’s a treat to soak in books like Dalio’s, as it stimulates a lot of thoughts around this.
There’s a tenuous balance between telling someone what to do and giving advice. It’s especially difficult as a mentor, especially if you’ve previously been a CEO and are used to being “the decider.”
As a mentor, you aren’t the decider. The CEO you are mentoring is the decider.
This dynamic is also true for many board / CEO relationships, where the board wants the CEO to make the ultimate decision. As I’ve often said, my goal as a VC is only to make one decision about a company – whether or not I support the CEO. If I do, I work for the CEO. If I don’t, it’s my job to do something about the CEO.
While this is nice in theory, it’s difficult in practice. One of my strengths is that I tell a lot of stories. One of my weaknesses is that, according to my wife Amy, my stories go on 20% too long (she is correct.) Here’s an example.
I’m at a board meeting. The CEO, which I love working with, is trying to figure out what to do about a particularly thorny issue. I tell a story. He reacts with a little more data. I tell another story. Another board member asks a question. I tell another story. This one goes on a bit too long.
The CEO looks directly at me and says, very firmly, “Will you just tell me the fucking answer for once?”
I tell him the answer.
He was looking for specific, actionable advice. I was telling him stories. If he spent enough time processing the stories, he might be able to come up with the right answer. Or, since they are stories, he might draw the wrong inference and decide to do something different from where the stories were leading him. This CEO was aware of that and, in real time was having trouble processing the point of the stories in his context.
Fortunately, this CEO was self-aware enough to ask for specific, actionable advice in a moment where he needed it.
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.
Last month I took two weeks completely off the grid. As part of it, I spent some time working on my next book, Give First. As part of that, I finished up the sections on Deconstructing the Techstars Mentor Manifesto. While I wrote a draft of this post over a month ago, It felt appropriate to publish this, and the next few Mentor Manifesto posts, after a wave of Techstars Demo Days that just happened.
#15 is “Be Optimistic.” It sounds simple, but it can be incredibly difficult.
As a mentor, your job is not to solve a founder’s problem. It’s to help. It’s to listen. It’s to provide feedback and data from your experience.
You can do this from many different perspectives. However, given the stress on a founder, it’s best to do this from an optimistic frame of reference.
Here’s an example of the challenge. You are a mentor to Maria, who is struggling with her co-founder Stephan, who has become unpredictable, inconsistent, and subdued. Maria feels alone, both on a day to day basis as well as in dealing with Stephan (there are only two founders in this case.)
As a mentor, you had a difficult co-founder experience in your last company. While the dynamics were different, it ended poorly with your co-founder leaving the company. While you haven’t spoken since you split up, your business was successful and acquired for a life-changing sum of money for each of you.
Your co-founder struggle is one that didn’t work out between you and your co-founder but was ultimately financially rewarding for each of you. You carry around this conflict in your head. On the one hand, you are pessimistic about where things between Maria and Stephan will end up. On the other, you know that even if their relationship fails, the company can still be a success.
You also learned a lot from your experience with your co-founder. Each of you made mistakes in approaching things during your conflict period. This hurt both of you and negatively impacted the company for a while. Your struggle with each other was public, and it ruined several other relationships with people who felt like they needed to choose sides.
Being optimistic in this context is difficult. But it can be done. Start from a positive frame of reference. Talk openly with Maria about the things that you and your co-founder did wrong as you tried to address your conflict. Be clear about how things could have turned out differently. Be introspective in your discussion and speak from experience, instead of giving advice. Remember to reinforce that even though your relationship with your co-founder ended up failing, your business was successful.
Let Maria have her experience as she tries to resolve things with Stephan. Try to be a positive influence in the mix to encourage her to do the work involved, even if they end up parting ways.
There’s a longer article on HBR by Adam about the general concept of generosity burnout. It’s a good read and it’s helpful to me as I start working on my next book, Give First.
Several people have picked up from the tone of some recent blog posts that I’m wandering up to the edge of this. I’m at my limit emotionally and made a conscious decision a few days ago to change modes through at least the end of Q2. I cancelled all my work travel in Q2, uncommitted to a number of things that weren’t already in process, and generally decided to focus my energy on what I’m currently working on, rather than add to anything new, especially in the “this could be fun but I don’t know why I’m doing it” category.
I already say no 50+ times a day. I’ve also tuned out a ton of noise around things I can’t directly impact. That’s not the issue. Instead, it’s remembering to ask myself “do I want to do this while I’m in my current mode” at least twice before I say yes to anything.
Periodically, at the end of a conversation, someone will ask me, “Is there something I can do for you?” I used to answer with “Do something that is helpful to something or someone in my world.” I usually get a pause and occasionally get a response similar to “I’m not really sure what to do to help you.” Over time, I modified my response to “Do whatever you think is useful to grow your startup community.”
I thought this was a good answer until someone paused, looked at me directly, and said “I’ve been listening to you talk about GiveFirst. I think I get it, but I feel like I don’t know how to help you.”
I realized that for many people, the vague answer I was giving wasn’t helpful. I was trying to create a lot of space for them to do whatever they wanted to be helpful. But the person, like many of us, was looking for something tangible to grab on to, in order to start with something specific that could cause them to feel like there was no question about them helping.
I now try to respond with something specific the person can do. I try to incorporate it into the person’s work. I’ll ask some questions to try to identify something that I know will be helpful to me, but also helpful to them. This is particularly easy for me, since doing something that helps with my global goals around entrepreneurship, rather than a specific, narrow task, helps me.
The magic trick is that if it’s helpful to them, they’ll realize that GiveFirst isn’t altruism. By helping me, they are helping themselves, and the flywheel of GiveFirst begins to turn.
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’ve started working on my next book, currently titled #GiveFirst: A New Philosophy for Business in the Era of Entrepreneurship. As a result, my brain is especially tuned to good examples that show a particular aspect of what we refer to as #GiveFirst at Techstars.
I was working at my desk the other day when Krista Marks, the CEO of Woot Math came in and said hi. We are investors and Jason is on her board. Krista and I have been close friends for over a decade and I always have time for her no matter what is going on.
She wanted to tell me a story about #GiveFirst so I stopped what I was doing, sat back in my chair, and listened. After she told me the story, I smiled and asked her if she was game for me to put it up on my blog as an example. She said yes and after she left I put a draft title in WordPress to remind me to recreate / write the story when I had some writing time.
Later that day, Krista sent me the full story, which follows, in an email. While the example is a simple one, it captures the essence of #GiveFirst nicely. Krista’s words follow.
A couple of weeks ago, I had just arrived in San Antonio to setup and exhibit Woot Math at a conference.
But I also desperately needed to find a conference room to use in the morning for a video presentation and live demo of Woot Math for the board of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund. The convention center didn’t have a room or WiFi I could rent in the center, but they pointed me to the Marriott across the street. The Marriott did have a conference room available for rent. Awesome! Here’s where the story should end, right? But then came the asking price: $400 for the room, $200 for WiFi, and $250 for a phone! I rejected the offer out of principle.
At this point it was after 4:00pm the day before I was scheduled to present at NSVF, and I was starting to worry.
My colleage Tom suggested, “maybe there’s a startup space that rents rooms.” We searched and found Geekdom:
No phone was listed but there was an address; with time running out, we decide to hop in the car and drive there.
When we arrive, it’s close to 5:00pm. I hurried up to the 7th floor of a new, modern office building. The door was locked, but there was a large window, and I caught someone’s eye. I explained that I’m the CEO of Woot Math, a startup in Boulder, and I need to a room to rent for an hour for an important meeting tomorrow.
I’m immediately welcomed in, and taken to Luke Owen, the COO of Geekdom. Luke asked if I’m involved in anyway with Techstars, and I’m pleased to share that I’m a mentor for the Boulder Techstars program. It turns out that Luke is one of the program managers for Techstars Startup Next in San Antonio, which runs it out of Geekdom.
After chatting and sharing lots of common, small world connections, Luke took me a cool conference room with high-ceilings and a large window. I’m told that it is mine for the day; I’m leant his VoIP conference phone; and I’m encouraged to help myself to coffee and the kitchen.
At this point, I’m pretty overwhelmed by Luke’s warmth and generosity. I say something like, “Wow. I honestly don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” It turns out he’s working with TeachTag, an ed-tech startup helping teachers be more organized. Luke asks if he can connect me with the founders Aaron Schuenemann. Here’s the lovely introduction that Luke sent –
It makes me so happy and proud to be part of the Techstars community and it such a powerful reminder of how entrepreneurs make the world better. Every day.