How did Sphero CEO Paul Berberian make the number one toy in the world? Sphero got to make the BB8 toy robot because of a connection made during a Techstars accelerator. That’s the power of the network. Hear him tell that story, and more.
Have you ever been mobbed in Times Square, like a rock star? Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, the company that makes BB8, at one time the number one toy in the world, has.
Paul talks about how mentoring and Give First were essential to Sphero getting the BB8 gig.
He loves mentoring as well, and describes the experience of being a mentor and having a positive experience on someone’s life as “addictive.”
Listen for more on the transformative nature of mentorship—from both sides—plus more behind the scenes details on how one of the best loved Star Wars toys came to be.
Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:
Raindance Communications – acquired by West Corporation
Edited highlights from the conversation:
The biggest lessons from being a mentor
David: We like to talk about experiences of mentorship on this show because we feel like a lot of people really get that Give First experience through mentorship, whether it’s something they’ve learned from someone or a way that they’ve been able to help someone else. Can you tell us the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about being a mentor or trying to help someone else?
Paul: I have two really big things that come to my mind when it comes to being a mentor.
The first is that it really doesn’t take a lot of energy, right? I don’t mean that it’s trivial, I just means that it’s actually pretty easy to be a mentor and to have a positive impact on someone’s life. It’s just being honest and listening and sharing your experiences so that hopefully someone can benefit from them.
The reason I share this is I’ve had people come up and tell me that I talked to them three years ago and said something really impactful. And I go, “I don’t know who you are. You sure it was me who talked to you?” They tell me, yeah, we met at this place.. and they have to go through this really long process to describe where we met. Finally my memory kicks in, and it’s amazing how something so simple and so small could have an impact on someone’s life.
The second thing I reflect on about mentorship happens oftentimes when I’m mentoring a young startup. I might be struggling in my own business, and they’re doing something that just doesn’t jibe with me—but they’re having success, and they don’t realize that while they’re talking about something they’re doing and they’re talking to me as a mentor, I’m secretly taking note.
I’m thinking, oh my gosh, look what they’re able to do with, you know, two matchsticks and a piece of bubblegum. We’re going to spend, you know, $100,000 trying to do something that won’t be nearly as effective. I’ve had numerous experiences like that, where the scrappy nature of a startup inspires me. You kind of lose touch with that scrappiness as you build a business. Sometimes it’s great to have that touchstone and see what young people are doing. I get a lot out of it.
Advice that changed your life
David: Is there something that someone shared with you that changed how you think about business early on?
Paul: I’ve been reflecting on this because I knew I was coming here today.
Jack Tankersley was one of the early Colorado legend venture capitalists and he was still an active venture capitalist when we first moved to Colorado back in 1994. We were approached to sell our company in 1995. We met Jack Tankersley and his partner Steve Halstedt at Centennial Ventures and we were faced with potentially selling our company or taking money from them. Jack could have been very selfish at that moment and said, “Let’s put some money into your business, let’s grow, build something big.” But he approached the situation from a different perspective; he didn’t approach it from a business perspective. Instead, he had a dialogue with me and my partners, and he asked about us personally. Are you married, do you have a mortgage? Do you have any debt?
He found out that we all had young kids, and we were all saddled with an incredible amount of debt, because we put our hearts and souls and our credit cards into the business.
Once he’d learned all this, he basically said, “You guys are smart. You’re going to do this many times in your life. Come see me after you sell your company and put some money in the bank. You’re going to be a much better entrepreneur after your first exit and success.”
That may not sound like an amazing piece of advice. But at that time it was very profound because I had never thought of myself doing this multiple times. And here’s someone who says, “I’ll be there the next time.”
It made me think about my career. I was around 28 or 29 at the time. His advice made me think about my career as the beginning of an arc. I’m gonna be doing a lot of different things in my life, and it’s okay to let go at this time of something that was my baby and to think about the next thing.
You become attached to something and it’s important to hear that it’s okay to move on.
David: There’s also that relationship piece, right? Where he was saying, “I’ll be there, too.”
Paul: Yeah, exactly. And that was really powerful. He was an investor in our next round and there were a couple of pivotal times over the course of our next business, which became Raindance, when he was there again, offering sage advice. He had a big impact on shaping me as an entrepreneur, he probably doesn’t know that.
Brad & David: We will make sure he hears this. We will spam him.
Brad: Jack is somebody who I consider a key mentor of mine. He was somebody I met very early in my own personal journey as an investor. I learned an enormous amount from him in the first three, four, five years of my own investing, both with investments that we got together and just talking to him and getting feedback from him and listening to him. He’s a great example of somebody who is very invested in relationships and less focused on optimizing for the transaction.
Paul: He really is. He really is all about the people.
The origin story of BB8 & getting swarmed in Times Square
Brad: Tell us about something that really sticks in your mind as a magical moment.
Paul: I’ll reflect on one that’s pretty recent. People may know of it. Sphero was involved with the Techstars accelerator program with the Walt Disney Company. It was back in 2014 and ‘15, and we were partnered up with mentors from the executive at the Walt Disney Company, and one of them was Bob Iger [Disney’s CEO], who met with all of the teams.
I remember the meeting with Bob Iger. Each company had 11 minutes with him, and in our 11 minutes he shows up and tells us about this new Star Wars movie coming out. There hadn’t been a new Star Wars movie in around 10 years. He says, “I know everything about you guys. We got a short amount of time, but let me show you something.” He pulls out his iPhone, and he shows us this new character.
It looks a lot like the product we were building at the time, which was a robot bobble. He says, “Can you guys make this into a toy?”
Of course we said, “Yeah, of course we can do that!” That’s the origin story behind BB8.
We went on to make BB8 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a big, successful movie, and we were the number one toy in the world.
I remember one very specific moment in time. There was an event in New York City at the Disney store when people were lining up outside the store at midnight to go buy BB8 when it first came on sale. The line went around the block. I was there as the company CEO to announce it.
I was literally swarmed in Times Square. I felt like a rockstar at that moment. I realized it was just a very brief moment in time, that it wasn’t gonna be here forever. But that was a pretty special moment. That was a fantastic moment.
David: Maybe they advertised it as Bob Iger was going to be there.
Paul: I think it was BB8. There were a lot of folks dressed up as storm troopers and Darth Vader.
David: Star Wars people are crazy. I mean, they show up.
Quick Fire Round
Brad: Let’s shift into a quick fire round.
David: We love Harry Stebbings. We love his show, Twenty minute VC. We’re totally ripping this off. We like to say that every time.
Paul: I did one of his shows way back when.
David: All right. A favorite book that you’ve read in the last year.
It was an audio book and I just finished it. It’s called Power Moves by Adam Grant. He interviews people at Davos talking about power and the section where he interviews women leaders is absolutely powerful. I’m going to go on for 13 seconds more because one of the most powerful things out of that book was the women leaders who said their success was because a man decided to mentor them so that they could elevate their careers. The fact is that if we want to see women in more powerful positions, we have to commit to mentorship, so that they can be successful. We can’t only go out to lunch with the guys.
David: Your favorite charity that you’ve supported and why.
Paul: My favorite charity is the Community Foundation.
David: A new startup people should check out.
Paul: I mentored Goally in the most recent Techstars cohort, and I think what they’re doing to help kids stay focused and get their lives in order is awesome.
David: A city that everybody listening has to visit.
Paul: Hong Kong.
David: Hong Kong. Awesome. Paul, thanks so much for being on the show with us today. We appreciate it.
Paul: Thank you.