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Mentor: David Mandell, Senior Marketing and Communications Executive and Entrepreneur
Techstars Program: Boulder

You have been with us for every program in Boulder. How did your relationship with Techstars begin?
I was lucky enough to know David prior to Techstars through some of the blogging that he was doing. And then Brad had told me about the program after he and David put it together. My co-founders and I had recently started Me.dium, which eventually became OneRiot, and had moved from New York to Boulder. One of the main reasons we decided to locate the business in Boulder was because of the tremendous support we received from the Boulder community for what we were doing. Almost everyone we met with in the community was incredibly supportive and we decided to make supporting the local community one of our focuses. One of the first ways we did that was starting a local tech meet-up, which my partner at Me.dium, Robert Reich has so successfully nurtured and morphed into BDNT. The first one, which was held in our office above Frasca was about 12 to 15 people. We were constantly looking for things we could do to reach out to the community and Techstars seemed a perfect way to do that.

When did you first get the startup bug?
I first made the shift from the corporate world to the start-up world in 2000. At the time, I had been running global communications for Deloitte Consulting out of New York. I had been in the agency and corporate world all of my life until that point. A friend introduced me to Kimbal Musk and I left Deloitte to join him at a start-up called FunkyTalk. Up until that point, I had spent years fighting layers of political backlash trying to effect change and that was the first time I felt like I could made a clear difference on the outcome of a business quickly and directly.

Do you still keep in touch with founders that you mentored during the program?
I’ve worked with quite a few of the founders over the years. and many, many of them have been great to work with. I truly enjoy that fact that I am still in touch with a large number of them and they don’t hesitate to call when they need some help, guidance, or simply someone to bounce some ideas off of. One thing that was interesting to me during my work with the founders — and it hasn’t really changed since Techstars has grown — is that even though these are clearly very smart, technically savvy people, there seems to be a consistent need for helping them focus around core positioning and messaging strategies. The ability to tell your story clearly, and as a result, have some clear focus on how to drive your business forward, is still fairly foreign to many of them. Very few of them realized that in order to move a start-up forward successfully, you have to be incredibly focused on motivation and priorities. And, until you have a clear positioning for your business, that process becomes cloudy quite quickly.

How is VentureVoodoo able to specialize in startups?
I love working with startups for the same reason I love working IN them – decisions can be made quickly and your input can have a massive impact on the business in a short period of time – whether that’s around funding, product development, or day to day business strategy. There’s a lot of energy and they tend to be open to ideas. One of the things I enjoy doing most, and one of the things that I truly believe a good mentor should focus on, is helping the founders understand what it is that they want to be doing – not telling them what I think they should be doing. We get all their thoughts on the board and then fine tune. They get so much more productive with some guidance; where they can focus on specific values, differentiators and strategies.

One of the questions I hear a lot in our social channels online is, “How do I rebrand?” What’s your take?
Core market strategy is a business strategy and you have to know yours. Why should your market care emotionally? Customer and client decisions are based on emotion. Think about the clothes and electronics you buy, services you use and you realize that you made the decide to purchase them based on emotion. Then you back up that decision with logic. The real reason people buy, try or use something is based on an emotional hook. That’s why it’s so critical as a start-up to really know who your market is. You need to know what their emotional or “pain” drivers are, what the competitive options are in the market and how you can create a compelling story through your product or messaging that can differentiate you, and provide the emotional driver the audience needs. If you ask an entrepreneur who their target market is and they say, “anyone, ” you know they’re in trouble right off that bat. You can’t drive decisions and iterate if you don’t know who you’re connecting to. Specifically understanding your market is critical.

One of your pet peeves is making the mistake of assuming your audience is ignorant. How do new founders avoid this?
I see way too many people put their heads in the sand and say, “They just don’t get it.” Ten minutes after they have decided what they are going to, they should start gathering feedback. Whatever it is they think they are going to do ends up changing. Sometimes it changes drastically and one thing they anticipated to be a feature becomes their core product. If you’re too heads down, “caught up in your own shorts” as I like to say, you miss the opportunity. Your ego gets in the way of understanding how your and your company/service are perceived. You have to get out of your own shorts.

What advice do you have for any entrepreneurs that are reading?
The misconceptions of marketing…There tends to be a very big bias in the start-up community against marketing. I’m not talking about tactics like buying ads or using PR – which is what most people believe marketing is – I’m talking about the ability to understand your current and future markets, use that understanding to drive your business strategy, and continue to communicate with and listen to those markets either through your product or messaging. If you’re a CEO of a start-up and you don’t understand those things, then you need a someone that does quickly.

Clare Tischer
Social Media and Content Manager, Techstars