“Every opportunity I’ve gotten in my life has been provided by a network,” said Sky Kelley, Founder and CEO of Avisare. She values them so highly that her own company, Avisare, is itself a network, connecting small business owners with government contracts, and building diversity and inclusion into the process. She’s seen the power of networks, and now she’s created a new one to level the playing field for companies owned or founded by women or people from historically underrepresented groups.
“Networking can get a bad rep,” Sky explained. “But for me, networking is about getting to know people and forming relationships. It’s about being genuine and being interested in people. It’s about giving as much as you get.”
“I didn’t know how important and valuable the network would be here until I got into Techstars,” Sky said. She applied to Techstars LA because she wanted to #DoMoreFaster: “I heard that businesses get better when they go through the Techstars program. I wanted to learn quickly and not make avoidable mistakes. The biggest element that none of us in the startup space have is time. If you can learn really quickly, that can be the difference between success and failure.”
What she discovered once in program was that it was the Techstars Network that let her learn so fast. “Being in the program, I honed my chops. I became a better leader, a better strategist,” Sky said. She met with mentors who were experts in branding, hiring, managing talent, fundraising, scaling businesses, and more. “You can find all this expertise through the Techstars Network.” In her business, Sky has to deal with lumpy revenue streams, where cash flow comes in a torrent, and then slows to a trickle. She connected with people who had experience with this type of revenue stream, and could help her manage her cash flow.
“I can get a connection to anyone I need through the Techstars Network. Whatever your business is, you can find people who can help you get better in any area of growing your business,” Sky said. “Not enough people understand how important that is.”
What this means is that even now, more than a year after Demo Day, Sky can still count on the Techstars Network to help her solve problems. She can find experts from around the world who have dealt with the issues her company is facing now. That’s what #TechstarsForLife really means.
The Power of Networks
Sky is passionate about networks, and what they can achieve: “Networks are about people helping other people. Period. And we all need help in this world.”
Sky knew about the power of networks even before Techstars. She grew up in a mostly low-income, mostly African-American community. It was a human connection that helped her get into a private, all-girls school starting at age 10. It was a human connection that helped her get her first job on Wall Street.
These—and a thousand more examples—showed Sky the power of networks, of people helping people. Throughout her life, she saw inequalities in the world, and wanted to do something to make a change.
The B2B space is where Sky feels comfortable. “I’m not a B2C person. I don’t understand consumers. I’ve never been one for trends or fads.” Instead, she looked for an opportunity that aligned with her mission.
Many governments, at every level, have requirements for them to work with small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses. Sky saw an opportunity to provide a better way to accomplish their mutual goals. Governments need small businesses to work with. Sky wanted to help provide opportunities for these same people. “It’s a really scalable way to make an impact,” Sky said. “I wanted to work on solutions that scale.”
That’s both good business and a great way to make a big social impact.
The Worldwide Network that helps Entrepreneurs Succeed
When a network operates on the principle of #GiveFirst, each member gives without expecting to receive something back from the recipient. Instead, they know that at some point down the line, someone else will #GiveFirst to them. When it’s a worldwide network of entrepreneurs, more businesses succeed, creating more jobs and more wealth in communities around the globe, all because people are helping each other, learning from each other, and giving to each other.
This is the power of entrepreneurship, and why Techstars is, fundamentally, a network. Because by intentionally creating a diverse and inclusive network of great entrepreneurs, we create new paths to success for people from every background. If you have a great idea and a great team, Techstars can give you the network you need to help your business succeed.
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.
We’re proud of Zipline for joining the unicorn club—but even more proud of all the lives they save
Team, team, and team. That’s what Techstars looks for in the startups we admit to our mentorship-driven accelerator programs, and the success and impact of Zipline, founded by Keller Rinaudo, Phu Nguyen, and Peter Seid, shows why.
Zipline, which uses drones to deliver lifesaving medical supplies to remote places, is now valued at $1.2 billion.
Zipline joined the exclusive unicorn club just a few days ago, joining Techstars companies SendGrid, PillPack, Digital Ocean, and DataRobot. But the company wasn’t always in the business of saving lives, or even running drones. When they first joined Techstars, they weren’t even called Zipline.
Crowdfunding an adorable robot
The team was part of Techstars Seattle Class 12 in the fall of 2011. Back then, the company was called Romotive, and it focused on turning smartphones into adorable robots. This was a pretty cool idea. But far more importantly, the Techstars Seattle team saw in these founders both passion for their robots and the crucial ability to receive feedback well, learn from constructive criticism, and make big changes when the situation called for it. The Seattle team were right, and the founders have applied these skills over the past eight years to get the company to where it is today.
Shortly after they finished the program, Romotive set out to crowdfund on Kickstarter with a goal of $32,000. They raised $114,796. In fall 2012, they closed a $5 million Series A just as they were returning to Kickstarter in 2012 a second time, intentionally using the crowdfunding platform as a tool to build community, ultimately raising $170,034 on their $100,000 goal. Press like TechCrunch, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal took notice.
Just a year out of program, and Keller and his team were doing everything right—and succeeding.
The long trip from A to B
But, as often happens in the startup world, things didn’t stay easy. In 2016, Zipline announced a $25 million Series B—five years after the original company launch. In the intervening years, especially when they stopped supporting Romo the robot, some reporters thought that the company was dead.
As it turns out, that was just the beginning of the really good stuff. Toy robots are great, and lots of kids were surely inspired to pursue their love of science and engineering by Romo the robot. We intend no disrespect for that early phase of the company—remember, that’s when we invested. But saving lives by airlifting blood to people in remote areas of Rwanda is the kind of thing that reinforces our belief that entrepreneurs make the world a better place.
Here’s what Keller told Pando in a 2016 interview:
The two things that made me want to start Romotive were that we thought there was this scale of smart phone components making new things possible in robotics and all this amazing new technology and no one was building something important with it for people’s lives.
Those two things are the guiding principles for everything we do here. What I’ve learned is we should set our sights higher and we should focus on things that would have a profound impact on people’s lives.
The value you can provide by seeing that someone is dying and they can’t get access to basic medical products and you can deliver it fast is so direct. Robots are really efficient at doing repetitive tasks. I’ve really sought out some of the most boring repetitive tasks on the planet and picked the ones I thought were the most important.
In that same interview, Pando founder Sarah Lacey asked Keller why he didn’t just close Romotive and start new. Here’s what he said: “I was 23 when I started this company and whole bunch of people believed in me. And you know, they believed in a very zany idea. Many people didn’t think a robotics company could be valuable at all. And when we decided we needed to build a very different product, it seemed the right thing to do to stay as the same company and double down and survive and prove that faith was well founded.”
We were some of those people who believed in Keller and his team from the very start.
Making the world a better place
With this newly announced round of funding, CNBC reports that Zipline will set up delivery hubs at 2,600 health facilities in Rwanda and Ghana by the end of 2019, and it will start delivering medical supplies in the U.S. soon, starting in North Carolina. Each distribution center has the capacity to complete 500 deliveries, which translates to up to one ton of medicine and blood products, each day, according to the Zipline website.
CNBC also reports that so far, in Rwanda, Zipline drones have made more than 13,000 deliveries.
We at Techstars are hugely proud of Keller, his team, and Zipline for this $1.2 billion valuation. But we’re even more proud of them for truly making the world a better place.
#GiveFirst is a Techstars mantra.
Simply put, it means giving—advice, resources, assistance, etc.—with no expectation of getting anything specific back. When a network of people, such as a global community of entrepreneurs, live in a #GiveFirst way, each is helpful whenever they can be. This builds a powerful network of caring people, all flourishing because they are all giving to each other. A #GiveFirst perspective asks, “What small thing can I do to help this person?” rather than, “What can this person do for me if I help them?”
This may all sound very abstract and idealistic, but #GiveFirst is unmistakable when you see it in action. And it works.
The Most Meaningful #GiveFirst Experiences
For Michael Maylahn, founder and president of Stasis Labs, “The most meaningful #GiveFirst experiences I’ve had have been when I’ve been the one giving.”
Michael and his co-founder Dinesh Seemakurty went through the Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in 2016, and have since mentored “tons and tons” of founders through the Techstars network—despite being well under 30.
That’s one mentor myth laid to rest: mentors do not have to be older than you. What they do have, regardless of age, are experiences that pertain to your problems, and a willingness to share their time and expertise.
Michael recalled one such experience, when a member of an accelerator class was paired with him, an alumnus. Her startup was setting up a pilot with a major healthcare network, and everything looked lovely. Then a large incumbent announced a new module that filled the same function as her product. Literally overnight, her business opportunity disappeared.
“For her, having someone to talk about it with was great,” Michael said. “Selfishly, it was also great for me. I got to peek under the covers and see how it was going down: not as an investor, employee, or customer, but just as another founder who wanted to help.” He got to be involved in the process of a 180-degree pivot and is glad to report that the company is doing really well.
This unique perspective that Michael got was hugely helpful to him. He had the chance to see how another terrific founder handled this brutal situation, and learn from it himself, with much less pain.
Mentoring hasn’t just given Michael ringside seats to difficult entrepreneurial situations. It’s also taught him the value of teaching. “In order to mentor well, I’ve had to solidify my viewpoints on fundraising, product management, hiring, marketing, and more,” he explained. “When you have to break it down and explain it to someone else, you end up understanding it better yourself.”
“In many ways, the more I’ve mentored, the more I’ve realized how mutually beneficial it really is,” Michael said.
“I Wouldn’t Be Where I’m At”
While today Michael is enjoying the benefits of mentoring, he’s had a long history of being on the receiving end of #GiveFirst. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at if hundreds of people hadn’t lined up to give their time and teach me how to run a company,” Michael said, with great certainty.
Michael and Dinesh are engineers. They started Stasis Labs as college students, and even before Techstars they were receiving the benefits of #GiveFirst: “I would talk with anyone who would give me 30 minutes,” Michael said.
To illustrate his younger self’s cluelessness, Michael remembered an excruciating exchange, when a well known investor asked him what the ROI for his customer was, and Michael had to respond with, “What’s an ROI?” He literally didn’t know what the acronym meant, let alone how to answer the question.
It is the hundreds of people who helped him that Michael is honoring every time he answers a basic—or not so basic—question from an entrepreneur. But he’s quite clear that he doesn’t see it as a transaction. He’s not mentoring because he’s in their debt. He Gives First because he sees the power of a network built on this principle, and because it’s the kind of person he wants to be.
Michael is grateful to Techstars for so much—for the chance to understand the opportunity for the product in the U.S. market, for help from all the Techstars mentors, for the enormous access with medical executives, directors, and VPs, all of whom gave him invaluable feedback on Stasis—and also for #GiveFirst.
“Techstars has given me a medium to #GiveFirst to others and for others to #GiveFirst to us,” Michael said. He’s going to keep Giving First, because it’s right, and because he learns so much from doing so. And he knows that when he needs help, the Techstars worldwide network is there for him, and ready to #GiveFirst.
Entrepreneur, investor, and Techstars board member Wendy Lea remembers the beginnings of Techstars, her first encounters with #GiveFirst—and how mentors have changed her life.
Wendy Lea is a longtime entrepreneur and investor, as well as a board member and mentor at Techstars. With David and Brad, she digs into some of her first mentoring experiences and reflects on a time when a mentor changed her life.
Wendy was early in her career and had just been offered a promotion that would cause a lot of change in her life, and she was hesitating. Her mentor told her: the risk of saying no is very high. “If you say no, you’re playing small. You have a lot of potential, and you need to go explore that potential.”
She did, and she traces her success back to that encouragement and good advice.
Listen for more about the risks of saying no… and saying yes.
Bonus: Listen to Wendy, David, and Brad reminisce about the first Techstars class.
Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:
EventVue – closed
Get Satisfaction – acquired by Sprinklr
OnTarget – acquired by Siebel Systems
Siebel Systems – acquired by Oracle
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
David: We’re really excited to have Wendy Lea here as a guest today on the podcast. Wendy is a board member at Techstars, and she recently moved back here to Boulder after spending four years in Cincinnati as the CEO of Cintrifuse. Welcome, Wendy.
Wendy: Thanks a bunch. That was a fun gig by the way, Cintrifuse. I’ll end on that.
David: Spend a few minutes giving us your origin story.
Wendy: A little bit about my background might help those of you listening grok my experiences and where they come from. My big success came with a company called OnTarget, and it came after lots of professional training in large companies. With OnTarget, three or four of us worked like dogs to make that work around the world. We owned it 100%, and we sold it for $150 million to Siebel Systems in 1999.
After that, I worked for Siebel, which was fantastic. I loved that because I learned a lot, and then I took that experience and started doing new things with it, for example, really working with venture-backed startups. That was very different: the risk, the reward, and the kind of mentoring that startups required. It was this that brought me to Boulder. In Boulder, I worked with companies like Lead Works—formerly Duo—and also Numerics.
Then I went to California. I made a bunch of angel investments and I did a big tour of duty at Get Satisfaction. Get Satisfaction was a big love, my biggest love in all of my work life. It didn’t turn out as planned, but it was quite remarkable. I’m back here in Boulder now, and proud to serve on the Techstars advisory board.
Brad: Wendy, would you talk a little bit about how you got introduced to Techstars and what your involvement with Techstars has been?
Wendy: At the very beginning it was an ask from you to plug into the community. From there you introduced me to David, and David told me about his big idea about bringing entrepreneurs and mentors together. That’s the first time I heard about Techstars, and that was the first cohort. I’ve hung around with a lot of mentors, and I became plugged in through the community that Techstars created here in Boulder.
David: Back then, that was really the first super visible example of Give First in Boulder. There were so many mentors who were trying to help that first class of 10 companies—which turned out to be a great class—and get this whole mentorship-driven accelerator thing going.
Tell us about your biggest lesson as a mentor.
Wendy: My biggest lesson as a mentor was with a company called EventVue. The founders, Rob Johnson and Josh Frasier, had an idea that was completely easy to understand. It wasn’t complex and crazy. I really got it and I liked what they were doing.
They were very, very early in their life cycle as entrepreneurs and they were impressionable. If a mentor told them something would work out, they really believed it. It was a struggle because I didn’t want to dispute other advice they were getting, but I suspected that the situation wasn’t going to work out. That was tricky, because you want to be upbeat. I believed in what they were building, and they were working like dogs. Of course, it didn’t work out.
Now when I see them, they always say, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed when I look back and think that I was so cocky.” And I say, “You know, it happens.”
David: So you were trying to manage that dynamic.
Wendy: I was trying to manage their expectations. This was before all the cool modules that we have now in mentoring, it was just us bushwacking through, doing what we could to give back. It was tricky. I did what I was taught as a young woman: ask a lot of questions, and see if they’ll tune into that reality or not.
Brad: Wendy, you’ve been involved in lots and lots of companies, both as a founder or entrepreneur, and you’ve been brought in by a bunch of startups to help by serving on their boards. You’ve also been a startup investor. When you reflect on all of those experiences, what’s the most fun you’ve had with a company?
Wendy: Building out the leadership teams.
Brad: Can you talk us through an example?
Wendy: On the venture backed side, it was awesome building out the team at Get Satisfaction. It was also hard.
Brad: What were some of the awesome things?
Wendy: We were really trying to figure out the match between the skills and knowledge that were being represented, and the needs we had on the team. We hired someone, and it turned out we brought in the completely wrong person.
He didn’t know how to get his hands really dirty: sit with the engineers and talk with them directly about what they saw in the code. The code needed to be refactored. It was going to be an expensive proposition. We all kind of knew that, but the guy was saying all the right things. He affiliated more with the product managers, and not with the engineers, and it caused problems.
That was a significant turning point for me, because I don’t have that background. I had to listen and learn and ask the founders. It was exciting and scary and costly when you did it wrong. I made a big mistake there and it really cost the company a lot of time and money.
David: Yet it was awesome.
Wendy: It was awesome.
David: Sounds like you learned a lot there.
I’m curious if you have an example from your career, Wendy, where somebody gave you some advice early in your career that really changed a lot for you?
Wendy: I’ve got one example from early in my career and one from later.
I had an opportunity as a young woman, in my mid-twenties. I got a promotion that required me to move from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans. It looked very risky to me. Personally, I’ve gone through a lot of change, so I can deal with personal risk, but I like my professional life to be stable. I was worried about moving and not knowing anyone in New Orleans. My husband couldn’t move with me.
My mentor, who was one of my bosses at the company, said to me, “The risk of saying yes is really very low. The risk of saying no is very high.”
I didn’t get it. My brain was going crazy. He told me, “If you say no, you’re playing small. You have a lot of potential, and you need to go explore that potential. So you don’t know anyone. You’ll meet people.” I’d never thought of that: the risk of yes versus the risk of no.
I told my husband I was moving to New Orleans. Of course he didn’t come. Yes, there was a divorce. Life continues. But that comment about playing small really made me think, and taking his advice changed my life.
The other advice, from later in my life, was from Rob Hayes, who’s a very dear friend at First Round Capital. He was an investor in Get Satisfaction when one of our first term sheets was pulled. The company had no money. We had zero. We were funding it ourselves, we weren’t doing well, and the term sheet got pulled. I didn’t know to be upset about that. I had not had enough experience to freak out when this happened.
Rob understood what it meant, and we met at a coffee shop. He asked me what we were going to do, and I told him that we would keep looking for money and I would invest and we would keep going.
I loved this company, and he was just like, “Wow.” Then he said: “I support you.” For Rob, if I thought there were conditions that we could build around, he was going to support me.
Brad: In 60 seconds or less. What does Give First mean to you?
Wendy: Give without expectation of return.
David: That’s far less than 60 seconds. I’m going to start using that.
The other thing I’d love to hear about is an example in your life where you’ve seen the power of Give First in action.
Wendy: There are lots of those! Here’s one. I was working with some universities in Cincinnati, and we were doing a coaching workshop, teaching people how to do good coaching or good modeling, showing behaviors by doing them. We were working one day in the engineering school, in a coding class. One of my students went over to a young woman and sat down with her. He said to her, “I can tell you’re struggling with this. What can I do to help?”
No one told him to do this, and I didn’t instruct them to run around the room and help each other out. That was good observation and good modeling. I’m really proud of that. It was very natural, so she didn’t feel awkward.
The more we model this behavior—giving without keeping score, and without needing immediate reciprocity—that will change the scope and slope of the work we do. If you model it suddenly and set expectations suddenly, then people lean in. They learn how.
Brad: That’s great. The last section here is something that we lifted from our friend Harry Stebbings, a quickfire round. We’re going to ask you a handful of short questions and we’d love very, very fast answers to each one of them.
David: Let’s do it. Wendy, what’s your favorite book you’ve read in the last year?
Wendy: Small Fry, by Steve Job’s daughter Lisa.
David: Do you have a favorite charity you support?
Wendy: I support the SPCA because I’m a big dog lover.
David: Tell us about a startup you met recently that you think people should check out.
Wendy: I’m very excited about Pipeline Equity, which happens to be a Techstars company, led by Katica Roy.
David: What’s a city that you think people have to visit before they die?
Wendy: I would say Oxford, Mississippi.
David: You did it. You’re through it. Thanks for joining us, Wendy. It’s been a blast having you.
Wendy: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Katica Roy is on a mission to close the gender equity gap—in her lifetime. And she has a formula for how to do it. It’s a formula that other entrepreneurs can use to tackle other large, seemingly intractable social problems.
The key is to turn a social problem into an economic opportunity.
“If we only view gender equity through the lens of a social issue, of fairness, then it becomes debatable,” Katica said. By making it into an economic issue, she changed the conversation from whether gender equity makes good moral sense to whether it makes good business sense. The latter is much more persuasive to CEOs responsible for maximizing shareholder value.
This was the crucial insight that persuaded Katica to found her company, Pipeline. Pipeline uses AI to increase companies’ financial performance by closing the gender equity gap.
How did Katica turn her critical realization into a successful company? Three steps.
Step 1: Research
“We didn’t start with the tech,” Katica said. “We started with research.”
Katica began with a hypothesis: from the macroeconomic perspective, gender equity is an economic opportunity. Katica and her team conducted research across 4,161 companies in 29 countries and found that for every 10 percent increase in gender equity, there is a one to two percent increase in revenue.
Other research backs her up. A McKinsey Global Institute report from 2015 found that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. In a 2018 report, Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist, and Jason Gold, global head of strategic relations and partnerships at S&P Global, found that the U.S. economy would be $1.6 trillion larger than it is today, and grow at a 3.1 percent pace—if women stayed in the workforce at the same pace as they do in Norway.
With the numbers on her side, Katica’s next challenge was to shift the perspective from big picture macroeconomics down to the level of an individual company’s success.
Step 2: Listening
With her research done and her hypothesis validated, Katica could have jumped in and built a platform. But she didn’t. Instead, she spent two months working with her team on a social listening campaign, during which she got 18 million impressions, and gathered a lot of valuable insights.
According to Katica, this was an absolutely essential step in the process: “In order to change the narrative around gender equity, you have to include more voices.”
After all, as she points out, “Gender equity is often viewed as a synonym for women’s rights. However, women are 50% of the conversation, men are the other 50%.” Katica doesn’t want to impact just women or families—she wants to make the world better for everyone.
“For me, this was a deeply personal obligation,” Katica explained. “Millions of people are impacted by a lack of gender equity. We need to be considerate. If we do this badly, we could do damage, and set back the conversation. For us, being thoughtful and inclusive is very important.”
Listening closely to what others had to say about gender equity was a crucial step toward building Pipeline, and building it right.
Step 3: Launch
Pipeline launched its first version in late in 2017 and the full version a few months later. Being mission-driven has helped Katica get both help and recognition for her company.
Last summer, Pipeline was a member of the inaugural class of Techstars Impact Accelerator. She went into the program looking for mentors. She wanted mentors “who didn’t think like us—because we can do that already pretty well.” She wanted people who could point out her team’s blind spots and help refine the product, as well as guide their marketing, PR, and sales efforts. The mentors in the program were everything Katica was looking for.
Though the company is still young, Pipeline, and Katica are already winning awards. From AI Breakthrough Awards for their technology and design to a Gold Stevie® Award (from International Business Awards) that lauded both Pipeline’s mission and business ability. Katica also received recognition from the Denver Business Journal, being named as a 2018 Outstanding Woman in Business. People are clearly taking notice. Most SaaS companies could only dream of this kind of endorsement, but the world-changing mission of the company—along with its excellent execution—elevate Pipeline’s profile.
Getting From There To Here
For other entrepreneurs who are on a mission to make the world a better place, Katica’s process can provide a template for success.
Want to get people, businesses, or governments to change? Find a way to make your passion project an economic necessity. Create a hypothesis about how this works, then do the research to test it. Listen to not just your customers, but also everyone else who cares about your cause as much as you do. Then perfect your tech and launch a great business.
Techstars is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed because we believe entrepreneurs make the world a better place. Katica and Pipeline certainly are. And by following their model, you can, too.
Chris Echevarria is a trend spotter, trained menswear designer, and cultural savant well-equipped to outfit a new generation of men.
“Whenever I acted out in school—and this goes back to when I was very little, like three or four—my mom would tell me, Chris, if you don’t behave, I’m going to take you shopping at Walmart. I would scream and cry: No, not Walmart!” Chris laughed a little telling that story.
This is a man who learned to read in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. As he said, shaking his head, “Fashion is a huge part of who I am, and my mother is pretty much the reason.” Chris has always known what he liked, and possessed a distinct level of taste. He’s a graduate of the prestigious menswear design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In some ways, his journey to founding Blackstock & Weber, a company that designs premium, handcrafted footwear for the modern man, looks like a straight line.
Except that Chris is a person of color, and percentage-wise, there are not a lot of entrepreneurs who look like him—especially in fashion and tech.
“We Don’t Need a Bone, We Just Need Real Opportunity”
Chris is no stranger to the struggles of being a black male within corporate America. He sees a trend toward inclusion and diversity in tech right now, and he sees both good and bad in it. “The good is that people are aware of the lack of color in the room. The bad is that individuals on both sides of the fence perceive this as throwing people of color the proverbial ‘bone’.”
“We don’t need a ‘bone,’ we just need real opportunity.”
Chris has advice for both other aspiring entrepreneurs of color and for companies who want to be more inclusive. For the POC who dreams of starting their own company, his main advice is to keep showing up, and to own the fact that you’re unapologetically you.
As for how entrepreneurship and tech can be more inclusive, Chris’s solution requires digging deeper. “Foster the talent where the reserves haven’t been tapped,” Chris says. “If you keep looking in the same places, the faces and types of people you attract will naturally repeat themselves.”
A Lifelong Entrepreneur
Chris has been an entrepreneur, or at least had a side hustle going, all his life. In college, he and his roommate ran a substantial sneaker resale business in their dorm room prior to the existence of marketplaces like GOAT or StockX.
He can tell you the exact day he quit his day job: December 28, 2017. “I went full on doing this, and I haven’t looked back.” But still, that momentum doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had his doubts. “I always, in the back of my head, feared taking that leap. Can I do it on my own? Am I good enough? Entrepreneurship is hard, especially starting out as a solo founder.”
Yes, it is.
For Chris, Techstars was a huge help in making something hard just a bit easier. Before Techstars, he’d met many entrepreneurs, but met very few that exhibited the same level of passion he did for his fledgling idea. He went through the Techstars LA program in 2018, and for him, it was all about the people. “Techstars has a rigorous process of finding founders that are of a certain caliber. Everybody is very serious about what they’re doing and seeing their dreams through to completion. It’s great to have a network of people around you that are just as driven as you are.”
The Next Generation-Defining Menswear Brand
Blackstock and Weber has been selling beautiful, well designed, handmade shoes for a year and a half now, and Chris is excited to build on that success by growing into a full scale lifestyle brand. “We want to be the next generation-defining menswear brand,” Chris said. “This is how I envisioned the brand evolving from the beginning.”
What does that look like? To Chris, “A tee shirt and jeans can be just as classic as a tuxedo. It’s about creating the scene. Our ideology is rooted in and influenced by film. We want to give guys the tools to create their own scenes in their lives via staple pieces that every man needs in his wardrobe and an assortment of other curated goods from around the world.”
Chris isn’t one to dream small: “We want to put our spin on how men present themselves. We believe it’s deeper than just shoes and clothes. Our goal is to be a source of inspiration and a trusted voice. We need our place. We believe this is something men across the globe are searching for.”
Then again, if he did dream small, Chris never would have gotten this far. He’s a long way from sounding out the words in Vogue, and he’s been driven by his passion, tenacity, and discerning taste every step of the way.
If you spot a blur speeding through the bright, airy space occupied by Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars, it’s probably Danielle Cohn.
She’s the Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Engagement and the Head of LIFT Labs for Comcast NBCUniversal, and she moves fast. Officially, she’s the corporate liaison, but her true role is so much more. As she explained, “Really, our team was side by side with the startups the whole time they were in the program.” She and her team met with the 10 startups in the program every week, helping them refine what they were looking for from their other mentors. “We helped them hone in on the outcomes they were interested in. We’re about getting results.” She also helped them connect with business units within Comcast NBCUniversal that might be interested in giving them feedback.
Danielle is an entrepreneur, as well. “I’ve had a couple of startups myself,” she said. “I’ve always had a side passion project because I’ve found it keeps me fresh.” She’s the first to say how much she learns from other startups. “I work with startups every day, and it gives me a reality check when I have my own. You have to be extremely nimble; you’re doing it all for yourself!”
Her experience on both sides of the startup-corporate divide makes her the perfect bridge between these two such very different entities. She is determined that both the startups and her corporation get the most out of the accelerator—and during the 13 weeks of the program, eight startups got a pilot off the ground, an exceptional success rate. By the end of the calendar year, three companies had additional contracts with Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal, or DreamWorks, and all the rest were still working with some part of the corporation. Three of the companies now have a presence in Philadelphia.
How does she do it? She has four rules for herself—and other mentors. Here’s how to mentor—and Give First—like Danielle does:
1) Have fun doing this.
“Mentoring shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like something you want to do,” Danielle says. If you don’t have the time, be honest—with yourself and with the founder—and bow out. Otherwise, let yourself enjoy the craziness of watching—and helping—a startup grow, change, and find itself over the course of 13 weeks. Or even beyond… Some mentors stay involved with the companies well after the accelerator program ends.
2) Be responsive.
“They only have 13 weeks. You’ve got to be responsive,” Danielle says, and you know she means it. Fortunately, she has some additional advice on how to do this well. “If you need to, bring someone to do your follow up. You’re going to walk out of the meeting with a to-do list of asks.” Someone has to do them—if not you, then your designated representative can look up names, make introductions, find that elusive bit of data that wasn’t at your fingertips when you wanted it. The important thing is that if you say you’ll do something, it gets done—fast.
3) Set expectations.
“Part of your responsibility as a mentor is helping the founder realize that 10 asks just isn’t realistic. They have to pick one to move forward with.” At least one at a time. Yes, you’re a mentor, but that doesn’t mean you have endless bandwidth. You can also help them understand which of their asks is going to do the most to get them where they want to go.
4) Be ready to learn.
“Mentoring is a very rewarding experience, and I highly recommend it.” Along with the pleasure of sharing knowledge comes the very real experience of learning from the entrepreneur you’re supposed to be mentoring. “I learn from startups all the time,” Danielle says.
Techstars connects the world’s largest corporations with the most promising technology startups. Learn more about becoming a Techstars partner!
By Ted Stuckey, Managing Director of QBE Ventures
For the past year, we’ve been promoting—both internally and externally—the concept of QBE becoming the “partner of choice” for startups. We’ve been inspired by the work that companies like Barclays and Stanley Black & Decker have put into their partnerships with Techstars. One of many great examples is the collaboration between Crowdz and Barclays to move B2B payments online. Stanley has not only reaped multiple benefits through pilots and collaborations, but they’ve also shown a clear commitment to helping their partners grow through funding and other follow-on support. Many of the decisions and initiatives we, as QBE and as QBE Ventures, have made and undertaken are a direct derivation of this idea.
But what does being the partner of choice mean?
As one of the largest international commercial and specialty insurance carriers, pivoting and adapting takes time. We’ve recognized that we cannot adapt to the changing times by ourselves and that we need to find partners who will help us and challenge us to be better. In an industry ripe for disruption, we need partners who will dispute the status quo and push us to reexamine our assumptions.
The need to collaborate with startups—and the benefits of collaborating—are unquestionable; however, too often we’ve seen partnerships fail and result in disillusionment on both sides.
Here are a few of our key learnings for successful collaborations between corporations and startups.
Speed it Up
Corporations need to be much more forthcoming and transparent about what their requirements and processes are. One of the healthy debates we’ve been having as a company is whether or not startups should be given special treatment. Over the last few months, our stance as the Ventures team is yes—but not necessarily in the way that you might imagine.
Our belief isn’t that startups should be held to a lower standard of security/risk, but rather that we have to be able to address those risk and security concerns faster than we do with companies that have the capacity and teams dedicated to dealing with a large corporations’ processes.
Startups often don’t have the resources in place to engage in a multi-month process of negotiations and paperwork. On the flip side, as a corporate partner, and hopefully one of the first large enterprises many of our future startup partners will work with, it’s our responsibility to help the startup understand what is essential when working with a large enterprise and to help prepare them for future interactions with less startup-friendly enterprises.
Innovation at the Desk Level
Corporations must strive to engage with startups and be innovative at the desk level, not just at the highest echelons. Breaking down silos and educating stakeholders internally about how to engage and work with startups has to be a focus.
It’s important that all stakeholders involved understand that engaging with a startup offers the company a chance to work with new and exciting technology, but that the engagement also brings its own suite of challenges. Corporations need to understand and prepare for what will be required to scale and need to be able to keep the project within scope.
Be Honest, Be Brutal
The most important element for a strong partnership is communicating often and clearly with the startup. Be honest, be brutal: it’s better than a no after a slew of calls and meetings filled with nodding faces.
As with all partnerships, success depends on both parties and, just as corporations must be transparent about their needs, startups need to be upfront about their needs as well. It’s essential that startups offer corporations a well articulated, relevant, and easily understood value propositions.
Push Us To Be Better
It’s key that startups take the time to understand the corporation they’re partnering with, from the corporate hierarchy to the infrastructure. Startups should have a plan for what a full implementation should look like and the resources required. But most importantly, push the corporations. Push us to be better, to approach problems creatively and challenge our preconceived notions.
As a Techstars Network Engagement Partner, we’ve not only engaged with Techstars accelerators around the world that align with our innovation and strategic priorities as a way to deal source, we’ve also helped startups in adjacent verticals figure out how to better approach the insurance space and better navigate a massive multinational enterprise. Being a part of the Techstars network has also given us access to the Techstars Partner community, where we have built peer relationships and shared best practices.
Our job at QBE Ventures is as much to prepare the business to be the partner of choice as it is to help our startup partners prepare to be the partner of choice for other corporations. Our partnership with Techstars as a Network Engagement Partner is one of the many steps we’ve taken to achieve that goal.
“Disruption” is a word that gets tossed around business a lot these days. But what if we could disrupt not just the way we do business, but the fate of our species and our planet?
The World In 2050
What will the world look like in 2050?
On our current path, coastal cities will flood, billions will live with terrible air pollution, and more and more lands and water will lose the ability to produce food for our global population, which will reach nearly 10 billion—so many of them will go hungry and thirsty, all while the natural world diminishes.
In October 2018, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) published a study that outlined two scenarios of what the future might hold. One shows the state of humanity and the natural world if we continue with “business as usual,” and the other offers a more positive future for both us and the environment if we switch gears and move towards a more sustainable path.
We all know that if we want a better future, we—as in, humanity—need to change. But how? Well-meaning acts like switching out incandescent light bulbs and carrying reusable grocery bags just aren’t going to be enough. While acts like these are important and necessary, we need more changes and at a larger scale. And the next 10 years will be crucial if we are to find our way to a sustainable future.
Can we change our course so that we move towards the sustainable path? And how do we get there?
Huge Advances in Technology
“We need a technology revolution to help us get on that path to a sustainable 2050,” says August Ritter, Program Director for The Sustainability Accelerator, a partnership between Techstars and The Nature Conservancy. “We asked ourselves: What can TNC do to help advance technology and disruption in conservation?”
Their answer: an accelerator focused on supporting entrepreneurs trying to address global issues, like climate change or sustainably providing food and water to our planet’s growing population.
Startups move fast, an important consideration given how much change needs to happen in the next 10 years if we are to switch course. They also come at problems from a new angle, and bring new technologies to bear on these difficult and far-reaching dilemmas.
All conservation and sustainability efforts are great, but using new technologies and ways of doing business that are already transforming the global economy are necessary to transform the global environment and take sustainability to scale. It is time to reconsider “business as usual.”
Inspiring the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs
“We need to inspire the next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs,” August said. He ticked off a series of goals for The Sustainability Accelerator: success stories to show that this path forward is possible; demonstrating to investors that they can earn a tangible ROI by investing in early stage companies with a focus on sustainability; integrating technology and learning from the startup community about how they solve problems—fast.
The inaugural 2018 accelerator was a huge success, and TNC is running pilots with six startups that came through the program. TNC has high hopes for the next class as well.
August loves a quote from Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook employee and founder of Cloudera: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
August offers an alternate path for today’s keenest problem solvers: “We need to be inspiring entrepreneurs to solve problems that matter. We need the best minds of this generation working to transform the world by 2050 into a place where both people and nature can thrive.”
Want to disrupt environmental catastrophe? August outlined the big questions he thinks startups can help answer in his piece, “An Invitation to Solve for a More Sustainable Future.”