Jason Mendelson, Co-founder of Foundry Group, has spent over 15 years explaining how venture deals really work. From blog posts to a book—Venture Deals is now in its 4th edition!—to a free online course, Jason and co-author Brad Feld are determined to Give First by demystifying VC.
Jason Mendelson, co-founder of Foundry Group, can explain what matters in negotiations between entrepreneurs and VCs in just two words:
Control and Economics.
It takes enormous expertise to make something complicated really simple, and these bare two words speak to Jason’s profound understanding of venture deals and how they work, for the entrepreneur, the investor, and the lawyers. In addition to being a VC and a company founder himself, Jason has also been a lawyer, a software engineer, and a professional drummer.
Control and economics mean that, in the hundreds of pages of legal documents around an investment, the two things that really matter are control of the company and economic return from the company. Jason and his Venture Deals co-author, Brad Feld, coined this paradigm—and Jason is very proud that it has been used, and stolen, widely.
This is what Jason is most interested in: sharing information. He loves making complex things, like the legal negotiations around VC deals, simple. He works hard to pry open the black box of VC and show everyone how deals get made, and what aspects are most important to the parties involved, whether you’re a startup founder seeking funding, an aspiring VC, or a lawyer diving into the world of venture deals.
Jason has been on this path for over 15 years now. He and Brad started blogging on the subject in 2005, and their book Venture Deals first came out in 2011. The fourth edition just published, and Jason explains why they’ve needed every single edition—he cites both better explanations and better writing. Jason and Brad also lead the free and popular online course, Venture Deals.
Listen for Jason’s insights into the evolution of venture deals, how teaching helps him learn, and, best of all, for the story of a board meeting during which all questions had to be answered with Hall and Oates song titles. See? The professional drummer bit really does connect. To listen on all platforms, choose your favorite here.
Listen for Jason’s take on…
The response to the first edition of Venture Deals:
“We immediately got hate letters from a ton of lawyers and VCs, and that’s when we knew we had done it right.”
What Venture Deals includes:
“Everything that Brad and I know about raising around of venture capital financing, and it’s slanted toward the entrepreneur.”
Why Jason and Brad wrote Venture Deals:
“So we really wanted to give this to the community and say, ‘Hey, here are all the secrets.’ Now all the bad people in ecosystem, they can just go away.”
Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- Defy Ventures
- Ljubljana, Slovenia
- John Stewart
- Venture Deals – free online course
- Venture Deals – 4th edition of the book
- Fred Wilson
Canadian VC Janet Bannister, a partner at Real Ventures, loves investing in “conscious founders” who are trying to make the world a better place. Her style of “human-centered investing” prioritizes people and relationships, and investing in smart, self-aware, teachable entrepreneurs.
Today, Janet Bannister is a Partner at Real Ventures, but when Founding Partners John Stokes and Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer first approached her about joining to give the firm a presence in Toronto, Janet was nonplussed. “Why would I go into Venture Capital?” she asked. “Isn’t Venture Capital all about grinding the entrepreneurs down?”
But she listened, and she learned about what VC could be, when it was done better, seeing “entrepreneurs as the heroes, and as people who can be supported and helped” with a mission that involves “helping the next generation of entrepreneurs and building entrepreneurial ecosystems.”
Now she’s all in, with an approach that she calls “human centered investing.” Like Techstars, Janet believes that team is paramount in whether a startup will succeed or not. “What exactly is a great founder, what exactly is a great team? In my mind, in my experience, it’s not about years of experience. It’s not about whether they’ve worked in the industry or not,” Janet said. “It’s much more about how they are as a person and how they are as a leader.”
When she’s investing, she looks for the “conscious founder.” Meaning: “Are they self-aware? Are they transparent? Are they aware of where they need to improve? Are they continually trying to improve and be open to feedback?”
Most of all, Janet is thrilled to be working with entrepreneurs who are trying to make the world a better place. “I love working with entrepreneurs. I love their passion, their determination, the fact that they are going all in on something that they believe in,” she said. “If I can be in a place and have a role where my job revolves around helping entrepreneurs and doing so in a consulting, advising, mentoring capacity, where really my mandate is to help entrepreneurs be more successful—What could be better?”
Listen for Janet’s hints for how she manages to talk with (almost) everybody, and how she stays healthy while also working so very hard.
Listen for Janet’s take on…
The importance of physical fitness:
“I was a competitive athlete growing up. I was a long distance runner. Then I got into triathlons, and I was on the national triathlon team for three years. I still get up between 4:30 and 5:00 every morning to exercise for an hour or so. And that gives me a lot of energy. I think that being physically fit is incredibly important for everybody, but particularly for entrepreneurs.”
“I try for eight hours of sleep every night and then getting up early and exercising. Those blocks are not moveable. They’re not flexible, they’re not negotiable. It’s just something that I do.”
How Janet schedules her time:
“I think I’m very efficient. My schedule is generally booked back to back. I have a 14 year old son, often I’ll drop him off at school and then I have a call booked in my car from the time I’m driving down to the office. And then from when I get into the office to when I leave, I’m back to back. Then on the way home I usually have a call booked. I don’t know if that is best practice, but it’s what I do to try to fit things in.”
“It’s something that I do struggle with. I try to make time for everybody, but at the same time I’m wrestling with, okay, at some point I need to say No because I need to prioritize the companies that we have invested in and make sure that I have enough time to spend with them and to think deeply about their businesses.”
How Janet Gives First:
“What helps me is, when I give, I never expect anything back. I don’t even expect a thank you.”
“My attitude is, I just give because I sincerely care about people and I want to help them. I want to see other people succeed and I don’t expect anything back. And I think, for me anyway, that helps my peace of mind, because I genuinely get a huge amount of satisfaction from helping other people. If I can help people, that is amazing.”
“I learn from every interaction. I think that so much of the venture business, of entrepreneurship, of building a business—It’s all about making connections. And I find that I learn from every interaction—and then I make connections.”
“I think that every time you meet somebody, if you’re open and curious, you’re going to learn something, and everything that you learn can somehow be applied to make you better in your next meeting.”
Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success, by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp
- Abraham Lincoln
- Parkinson’s Foundation
- Real Ventures
- John Stokes
- University of Waterloo
- Upside Foundation
“The true path to happiness is to have meaningful work and meaningful relationships,” Heidi Rozen says. She brings these two elements together as a VC working with entrepreneurs who are changing the world for the better. Her humane take on being a “mentor capitalist” is deeply Give First.
Heidi Roizen has called herself a recovering entrepreneur. Wendy Lea has called Heidi “the epitome of Give First.” Both of these are true, and go a long way toward describing the deeply humane perspective on the role of venture capital that Heidi brings to her current role as a partner at Threshold Ventures.
Heidi was an entrepreneur herself for 14 years before exploring other career options (VP of Worldwide Developer Relations at Apple, for example) and eventually settling in as a venture capitalist—or “mentor capitalist,” as she sometimes says, in a nod to the profound importance of mentorship in the role.
Heidi likes to joke that “entrepreneurs should be really careful about picking their venture partners, because the average VC relationship lasts longer than the average American marriage, and it’s probably easier to get rid of your spouse than it is to get rid of your venture capitalists.” There’s truth hidden in that joke: the VC-entrepreneurship relationship is a human relationship, not just a financial one. Heidi takes the human side just as seriously as the financial. She wants success in all areas, and sees how thoroughly the two are entwined.
For Heidi, “the true path to happiness is to have meaningful work and meaningful relationships.” She’s achieving this by working with amazing startups that are making the world a better place, and helping to make them better companies.
That sounds like Give First to us.
Listen for Heidi’s fantastic insights about how life and work mesh—and listen all the way through for stories about Heidi’s epic underground casbah from the dot com boom and why one of Heidi’s kids calls Brad Feld “toenail boy.”
Listen for Heidi’s take on…
The true path to happiness:
“The true path to happiness is to have meaningful work and meaningful relationships. And I think one of the beauties of the entrepreneurial environment that we live in is very often you form your meaningful relationships through doing meaningful work together.”
“I go into life thinking I’m about building relationships. I’m not about transactions, I’m not about win or lose or this is what am I going to get out of this deal. I’m about, you are a fellow traveler in life that I have met and if I can build a relationship with you, out of that will come good things. Or if not, not. But I’m always trying to optimize for the relationship over the transaction.”
“I’m such a huge believer in serendipity or what I call controlled randomness, right? The idea that you don’t necessarily know when you go into something what you’re going to get out of it. But if you position yourself in a place where you’re going to find other people that are doing interesting things, it’s likely that something good will come out of that. If you just put yourself in the mix and say, ‘I’m here to be helpful, what can I do?’”
“Just remember, we’re all people first. We’re our jobs second.”
The relationship between entrepreneurs and VCs:
“I only succeed if the company succeeds, and I really enjoy that alignment. I also really enjoy the idea that I get to be a part of a team for a long period of time.”
“I often joke that entrepreneurs should be really careful about picking their venture partners because the average VC relationship lasts longer than the average American marriage, and it’s probably easier to get rid of your spouse than it is to get rid of your venture capitalists. So both parties should go into this with their eyes wide open.”
“I say this to my entrepreneurs a lot, there are things you are doing that no one’s ever done before and those should be hard. There are things you’re doing that other people have done before. And those should be easy. You know, it should not be hard to design compensation schemes. It should be not difficult to put your financial operations in order. Those are all places where we can use best practices and stand on the shoulders of others to create the best situation we can.”
Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear
- Case Study: Heidi Roizen
- Memphis Meats
- Stan Meresman
- National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)
- Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA
- San Francisco SPCA
- Tina Seelig
- There There, by Tommy Orange
You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to start a successful company. Marc Nager, Co-founder of Startup Weekend, and Dave Mayer, Founder of Aspen Entrepreneurs, are pros at building ‘non-urban’ startup communities. Listen for insights into how Give First helped them grow startup ecosystems in Telluride, in Aspen, and beyond.
Too many people believe that you have to be in Silicon Valley—or some similarly hyped tech-obsessed locale—to be an entrepreneur. Techstars knows this isn’t true: successful entrepreneurship can happen anywhere.
Marc Nager and Dave Mayer are living proof.
Marc is the Co-founder of Startup Weekend, the former CEO of UP Global before it was acquired by Techstars, and Techstars Chief Community Officer after the acquisition. He is on a mission to bring entrepreneurship to rural America.
Dave is the Founder and CEO at Technical Integrity and Massive Impact and the Founder of Aspen Entrepreneurs, and an active and passionate member of the Colorado startup community.
Both are hugely active in their local startup communities, Marc in Telluride, CO and Dave in Carbondale, CO outside of Aspen, and both see how entrepreneurship can thrive in these relatively small places—and what entrepreneurship can bring to them to make them economically sustainable for the long term.
Listen to hear Marc and Dave talk with Brad Feld—who literally wrote the book on Startup Communities—for a deeply thoughtful exploration of the how and why of entrepreneurship in a ‘non-urban’ environment.
Listen for Marc’s and Dave’s take on…
Marc and Dave on the economic benefits—and potential—of entrepreneurship in a small town:
Marc: “I fundamentally believe entrepreneurship is the most powerful force in advancing human welfare.”
Marc: “We can look at Telluride as a microcosm for what’s happening in the rest of the country through the lens of economic development, and see how can entrepreneurship can play a massive part in a vision for creating a more sustainable economy over the long term.”
Marc: “You find some incredibly accomplished people in these small towns. Likely they’re the people who grew up here who went off, had careers, and came back, and they’re looking to participate in different ways, as entrepreneurs or as investors. You end up with a vast resource of this intellectual and financial and network capital in these small towns.”
Dave: “For me it’s about quality of life, right? Broadband means that people can work from wherever they want now. All you need is a laptop and a great internet connection and a great idea—and obviously an ability to execute—and the ability to build a great team around you.”
Dave: “The word entrepreneur, the word startup—some people worry that we’re going to attract a Facebook to some 50,000 person valley and it’s going to change everything. That’s not really the goal, right? It’s getting five or 10, $10 to $20 million companies that can create real jobs for people and give them great health care. Those people can raise their kids here, live the life that they’ve dreamed of, and not be forced out by these rising prices around Aspen or Telluride.”
Marc and Dave on the new definition of success:
Marc: “The new American dream isn’t getting a fancy job and climbing the corporate ladder. It’s about living and working where you want—and having meaningful work.”
Dave: “Everybody has their own definition of success. And if that means working out of a coffee shop and hitting a powder day and then working with your friends and on something that you’ve been dreaming about forever, then that’s an easy one. That’s an easy success.”
Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- Techstars Startup Weekend
- Stephanie Copeland
- Greater Colorado Venture Fund
- Telluride Venture Fund
- Jesse Johnson
- Justin Lewis
- Mercury Payment Systems
- Roaring Fork Technologists
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Telluride Venture Accelerator
- Aspen Entrepreneurs
- Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Startup World (12016 Boulder Startup Week)
- Technical Integrity
Can you give too much? John China, President of SVB Capital, reflects on how mentorship helped him grow into an executive, and on whether, at some point, you need to see payback from all your giving. Spoiler alert: the answer is no. Never stop giving.
In over 23 years at Silicon Valley Bank, John China has made it his mission to make connections between entrepreneurs, investors, corporations, and more. Many, many entrepreneurs at Techstars and beyond have benefitted from his Give First perspective on working with startups: that you “give, give, give” and you have to “be willing to do that for a long time.”
David Cohen asked John, “At what point do you need to see some payback from that giving?” You should really listen to hear his whole, fascinating answer, but the short version is: You keep giving.
John recently moved into a new role as President of SVB Capital, with $4.5 billion under management, and he’ll be supporting entrepreneurs and startups at their earliest stages. John and David talk about what this new role means for him and for entrepreneurs. And they get into how John’s mentor at SVB helped him grow into an executive, and how John is paying it forward by mentoring women and other POC. He describes himself as “first generation Mexican American from immigrant parents”—and his life experience has contributed strongly to making him the Give First person that he is.
Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- Give and Take, by Adam Grant
- Adam Grant
- David Hornik
- Abraham Lincoln
- The Lobby Conferences
- Meals on Wheels San Francisco
- Silicon Valley Bank
Edited highlights from the conversation:
Can you give too much?
David: One of the things I’ve heard you tell your team is: Guys, it’s give, give, give, expect it to be two or three years of give, give, give before you ever get anything back. It’s not quid pro quo. It’s be willing to do that for a long time.
How do you know that that’s paying off, or when you decide that maybe you’ve given too much? Adam Grant in his book talks about, there’s some people that’ll just take, take, take on the other side of that. So at what point do you need to see some payback from that giving?
John: You know, it’s a really interesting question. I’m very inspired by Adam Grant. I’ve had a chance to meet him and spend time with him thanks to David Hornik and his Lobby Conference. And I’ve actually asked him that question. I’ve actually pondered this idea of a world of takers, matchers, and givers. Can givers long term win? Certainly Adam Grant’s work proves that givers do win in the long haul.
I’ve thought a lot about this, and from where I sit, I don’t know how you eventually ask for something. I think if you are in a giving mindset and it’s an authentic voice within you to give, I’m not sure you ever really need to ask.
Certainly the way we measure, if you want to get technical, is we do look for what we call client advocacy. I know this is something you care about deeply, David. We think that the best loudspeaker for our brand are the clients we serve. And so the way we long term measure our effectiveness is around client advocacy. And so again, I’ve often asked the question, is there a point where you’ve given too much? And I actually think the answer’s no, I don’t think that you ever need to ask that question.
Advocating for Women and POC
John: You know, people always ask me, Why do you have such a commitment? As a first generation Mexican American from immigrant parents, for me, it’s simple.
Women form 50% of our society. And if they’re not getting advantages, or being disadvantaged, then certainly people of color have a lot worse chance. And so for me, it’s just a very rational way to look at the world. We’re not using the talents of half of our society.
Especially in our industry, David, where VCs generate less than 3% of the capital being raised by women. And then when you look at the entrepreneurs statistics, they’re just slightly better at under 10%. And so at my time of the bank and in my new role, I’m really excited to try to bring products that really support giving capital to women in both the GP side and on the entrepreneur side. I’ll be spending a great amount of my energy focused on: How do we go to the LP community and get them to commit funds to women GPs and women entrepreneurs? I think it’s a perfect time, and I really believe that from where Silicon Valley Bank sits, we sit at a unique place in the ecosystem where we get a chance to potentially debt the universe a bit. I’m really looking forward to that opportunity.
David: I see the same opportunity, we’ll talk more offline about that, but I see the coupling of that with these managing director roles that we have here at Techstars where you get 10 investments a year and you can build a portfolio of 50 companies in five years. It’s hard to do anywhere else, and it’s an apprenticeship model, you learn from doing. There might be something fun to collaborate on there as well.
Rapid fire round
David: First question. What give, give, give relationship, that you’ve had with a CEO, are you most proud of today?
John: There are several, of course, but for me it’s when a CEO is in a turnaround situation and you’ve been there in the worst of times, and you’re able to come out the other end, and you had to do some pretty difficult discussions with that CEO. But more importantly, you also had to restructure things and convince people on your side to do the same. When I think about the CEO relationships that are most meaningful, it’s the ones where we went through some really dark times together.
David: How about your favorite city in the world, someplace you think everybody should visit?
John: Well, I’ve had several. Paris, Paris always comes to mind, one, two, three. But I’m really falling in love with the North American cities. I think North America is underrated. And so I keep real track. So I’m gonna cheat and tell you that I look at Toronto, New York City, and Mexico City as three shining examples of cities that are really taking on more prominence in the world ahead of us.
David: John, is there a charity that you might be involved with that you would urge people to take a look at, and why?
John: Yeah. You know, I just joined the board of Meals on Wheels San Francisco. I’ve been part of Meals on Wheels for many, many years. But I love causes where we can solve the problem, where we can see the solution, the light at the end of the tunnel. And ending hunger for elderly people in San Francisco is something that we collectively can all solve. And so I’m very passionate, very committed to helping Meals on Wheels San Francisco achieve its goals.
David: Well as you know, you never know what you’re going to get back from Giving First. So we here at Techstars, we’ll make a donation to that one for you in your name, and also make one to the Techstars Foundation, which is focused on diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship. Just a little thank you for being on the show.
John: Thank you. David.
David: Last question, rapid fire. The last question and I’ll let you go. Is there somebody, dead or alive, in history, it doesn’t matter who, that you would love to have dinner with and why?
John: The person who has inspired me over the years is Abraham Lincoln. Obviously I’ve read his books and the books about him. And I think about that point in the war, when it comes to civil rights and the choices he had to make to keep a tattered government together to fight, to do the right thing. He has always inspired me. When I’m put at my toughest challenges, will I rise to the occasion and do the right thing? And I am constantly inspired by his leadership and what he did to keep this country together at a time that it frankly wanted to break apart.
David: Great. John, on behalf of everybody at Techstars and everybody listening, thank you so much for all you do for startups and the startup community and all that SVB does. It’s noticed and appreciated, and thanks for being on the show with us today.
Do you know how to be a great ally in the workplace? Why all startup founders should do karaoke? What the secret sauce of the Seattle startup ecosystem is? Create 33 Director Rebecca Lovell knows the answers to all these—and more.
Rebecca Lovell plays, as Brad Feld says, “a very important role in the center of gravity for the Seattle startup community.” Currently Director at Create 33, a resource center for tech entrepreneurs, Rebecca teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Washington and has held a number of roles in Seattle city government, from Startup Advocate to Acting Director of the Office of Economic Development.
Listen for more of her interesting career trajectory, which has gone through unexpected turns because of “nudges” given by mentors and others, resulting in Rebecca’s strong belief in the power of mentorship and giving first.
Then keep listening for actionable advice on how men can be allies to women in the workplace as well as Rebecca’s hilarious dive into why all startup founders should do karaoke.
Companies, people, and resources mentioned in this podcast:
- Backstage Capital
- Create 33
- Marie Curie
- Arlan Hamilton
- Illuminate Ventures
- The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates
- Janelle Monáe
- National Center for Women & Information Technology
- Cindy Padnos
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Lucy Sanders
- Sayulita, Mexico
- Chrissy Teigen
Edited highlights from the conversation:
The secret sauce of the Seattle startup ecosystem
Rebecca: As I like to say, the secret sauce of the Seattle startup ecosystem is coffee. And it’s not just because we’re so highly caffeinated, but that can’t hurt. I think it’s that we have this undercurrent of collegiality and collaboration where you can get a cup of coffee with anyone that you want or need to meet. You combine that ethos with the lived experience of entrepreneurs and investors who just raised their hands and said Yes to supporting Techstars. That’s the moment that [Techstars Seattle, which started in 2010] stepped into. And now, you know, almost 10 years later there are 40 coworking spaces, there are 80 engineering centers located in greater Seattle. Facebook has the biggest footprint in Seattle, outside of its headquarters. We’re not just a one horse town dominated by Microsoft or even two horses, Microsoft and Amazon. It’s a really rich ecosystem. But you got here at pretty interesting inflection point in our story about ourselves as a community.
How can men be allies?
Brad: I’ve been very involved in an organization called National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years.
Rebecca: Lucy Sanders, absolutely.
Brad: I was board chair for a while and worked very closely with Lucy, and I learned a lot about this notion of male advocates or male allies. And I’d love to hear, in your words, how men can help around the issue of diversity and inclusion. From your frame of reference as a woman, how can men be allies?
Rebecca: Absolutely. I gave a couple of examples of when men can use their power and their privilege to promote women. The first case in my own personal history was that recruiter who happened to be a man who convinced me that I was management material and my classmate who was a man who convinced me that I just win things. They both had positions that they leveraged to open a door for me knowing that I would succeed. Those are just a couple of small examples.
I also think it’s in just everyday behavior and creating a discipline around making room for women. I kind of don’t like the phrase ‘lifting up’ women. What you really need to do is quit pushing us down. But here’s one way you can make room for us. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in, whether it’s in the tech sector or in city hall, where I’ll be one of just a few women in the room, and men categorically have a tendency to talk over us.
For example, if my colleague Jessica would make a point and the man running the meeting would run over her, I would make a point of saying, “to Jessica’s point,” then repeat what she said—it’s very critical to use her name—and then maybe add my piece to it. This is a technique that men can use. You can amplify women’s voices, but I can’t tell you how important it is to use their name when you do it. If you just repeat what she said, you will instantly be given credit for it. So be mindful of sharing credit, you know, shining a light on the incredibly important voices of women. Those are just small daily practices that you can engage in.
And then I think writ large, if you look at the deplorable share—disproportionately low share—of venture capital investment that women get, part of it is about the institutional bias that might be brought into a partner meeting on a Monday afternoon, where your bias is going to be towards investing in men. But the real issue that was uncovered by Illuminate Ventures out of the Bay Area, Cindy Padnos’ group, is you literally have to take more meetings with women. If you think about the venture funnel, if you take 900 meetings over the course of the year and that gets you to nine deals, you want to start at the top of the funnel by taking as many meetings with women entrepreneurs as you can.
So that’s a daily behavior change: just think about ways to find and say Yes to meetings with women entrepreneurs, and over time, both by changing the behavior of the men who dominate the VC industry and making room for more women to become investors and lead a VC firms—like Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital—that’s when we start changing the narrative and changing the results.
Karaoke as a metaphor for pitching your startup
Rebecca: The point of Karaoke is that it is 40% song selection, and in startup language that’s product market fit. You need to know your range, that’s your product, and you need to read the room, know your audience and try to pick a song that’s gonna resonate with them—that you can sing. That step one, that’s 40%. 50% of it is just selling it, getting on stage and acting like you own it. And that comes down to the grind and the execution that startups face. And if you do the math, that only leaves 10% for talent.
I love Karaoke, as I said, almost as much as I love entrepreneurship.
Rapid fire round
Brad: All right. First one. Favorite city in the world other than Seattle.
Rebecca: Well, would it be to visit, to live, to retire?
Brad: Oh, you get to define the way you answer the question.
Rebecca: All right. Just because I have such a hard time unplugging and truly chilling out and getting off the grid, I would say Sayulita in Jalisco, Mexico. I’m a scuba diver and there is no better way to get off the grid than sitting around with great food, amazing beach. This little town probably has as many chickens and dogs as it does people. And I’m almost hesitant to say it because it’s been this beautifully kept secret, but I love it there.
Brad: Second one, how about a book that you’ve read recently that you thought was fascinating?
Rebecca: Yeah, I have been this total podcast and audio book junkie of late and the one that I just finished up is Melinda Gates’ Moment of Lift, and it’s not for the philanthropy—I think that commitment as well known and the impact is well known.
I love reading books and learning stories when I can get some new insight. And what I loved about this book was hearing directly from the author—Melinda read the audio book—and she had this, what I think is a real startup-y, entrepreneurial approach to their theory of change. Like they went into the market of the developing world, knowing that there was a global crisis around children’s health and easily preventable diseases.
Their plan was to focus on kids, but when they did their customer discovery phase, in startup parlance, they spoke with so many women, mothers and learned that the most life changing thing they could do would be to provide birth control for these mothers. So they went in with a set of assumptions, but they did such a great job of listening. They pivoted to where they felt like they could make the biggest impact. That was a wonderful discovery that I got through that book.
Brad: I’d strongly recommend that book as well. I read it a couple of weeks ago and I think it’s going to be on my list of top nonfiction or memoir-type books of the year. I don’t know Melinda Gates personally, but you really get to know her from the book, which was another thing. It’s very hard for an author to do when they are going after a specific topic, and not have it just be an autobiography, and this certainly isn’t. You really get a sense of her as you read it, which is awesome.
A charity that you’d urge people to get involved in and why, especially for the listeners in Seattle?
Rebecca: Absolutely. I am a huge fan of a program called Apprenti that was launched by the Washington Technology Industry Association. This directly addresses the talent shortage that we have in the tech sector and seeks equitably shared prosperity. This is an accelerated training program for career changers who are seeking living wages and meaningful careers in IT. And they primarily focus on barriered and underrepresented populations like women, like people of color, like justice-involved individuals, like veterans. A remarkable story. They’ve now served hundreds of graduates with life-changing training.
Brad: Last question. Guns N’ Roses themed: If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive.
Rebecca: Hmm. So I was a history major in college and have long been an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, just in terms of her commitment to race and social justice and gender equity. But if I were hosting, I would make it a dinner party and I would have Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Curie, Janelle Monáe, and Chrissy Teigen. I think that would be a delightful party.
Brad: That’s a great group.
Thanks for the time today. And more importantly, thanks for all the awesome stuff you do for entrepreneurs and for everybody, both in Seattle and everywhere else.
Strong mentorship was essential to Kesha Cash’s journey to becoming an impact investor. Her mentors Gave First to help her—and now she’s Giving First to diverse entrepreneurs through her Impact America Fund.
Kesha Cash founded Impact America Fund in 2013 with a goal of investing in software and tech enabled companies that have a positive benefit on underserved communities in America. In 2018, she was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.
She went to Columbia Business School knowing that she wanted to start a fund that invested in diverse entrepreneurs, and it was there that she met Josh Mailman, founder of Serious Change, who became her mentor.
As an impact investor, Kesha Gives First every day. But she got to where she is today because of others, especially Josh, Giving First to her—empowering her, teaching her, mentoring her, and ultimately encouraging her to go out and start her own fund.
Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:
Serious Change LP
The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, by Mihir A. Desai
Edited highlights from the conversation:
The best mentor relationships become two way
Kesha: I had the opportunity to meet Josh Mailman [founder of Serious Change] at Columbia Business School. His family endowed the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia and I started to work with him during my last semester at Columbia Business School.
This was, gosh, this was in 2010. I’d never met an angel investor that was interested in mission driven companies. I met Josh and Josh was a 60 year old at the time, you know, and a Jewish white man. We had this meeting and he expressed a sincere interest in moving more dollars into mission driven entrepreneurs of color based in the U.S., so we connected in many ways around that mission and I started to work with him. I volunteered during my last semester to identify companies that would fit the thesis of Serious Change. More specifically we were looking for entrepreneurs of color, and we made a number of investments together. What started out as a semester of volunteering ended up being a three year initiative within Serious Change to identify more of these companies.
Rod [Robinson, founder of ConnXus] was one of the investments that Josh and I made together. ConnXus was one of the investments that turned on the light bulb for me in regards to this thesis of there are tech solutions out there that can address inequities within systems. In the case of ConnXus, really looking at diversity and small businesses and the relationship with supply chains at large corporations is obviously very exciting. That early investment in Rod at ConnXus and a few other entrepreneurs that were using technology solutions became the thesis for Impact America Fund One. I was thankful for the continuous support by Josh Mailman and Serious Change. So that family office created space for me to learn, to grow my network, and to refine my thesis for Impact America Fund.
David: It sounds a bit like Josh was somewhat of a mentor, but like the best mentor relationships, they become two way, and I’m going to guess he’s learned a lot from you over the years as well.
The godfather of impact investing
David: Rod said it’s super clear to him that Josh, who he viewed as a pioneer of impact investing, has probably passed on a lot of knowledge and expertise to you. Talk about a little bit about that relationship that you have with Josh and maybe some things that you’ve learned from him or that he’s learned from you over the years.
Kesha: I call Josh the godfather of impact investing. He’s been at this for a very long time, before the term was sexy. We’re certainly happy that it’s a mainstream term now, but Josh and friends started this work over 30 years ago. He’s one of the cofounders of the Social Venture Network, of Investors’ Circles. It was really Josh and his colleagues, including folks like Ben and Jerry’s back in the day, saying, hey, there’s a better way to build businesses. There are ways for us to move our money that are good for society. I’m really blessed that I had the opportunity to meet Josh and work directly with someone. I learned from the godfather of impact investing about building this ecosystem and being catalytic.
Before I met Josh, I met people that knew Josh. They’re like, Josh is this radical, you know, in the best of ways. As an angel investor, he’ll sit down with someone, he’ll hear their idea and write them a check.
What I learned about Josh is that there’s a lot of thought process in writing that check. He’s really good at tapping into someone’s intentions. And we don’t always get it right, but I would say Josh has a gift for understanding the intentionality around a founder’s mission or business idea. What I’ve learned through him is that while that intentionality is extremely important in traditional business, I would say it’s even more so in impact investing. Understanding the founder’s intentionality and their reasoning for wanting to wake up every day to do this is truly important. That’s one of the many things that Josh taught me.
He’d ask me after meetings: do you think this person’s a good person? Which is a loaded statement for him because there are nuances as to what we mean by a quote unquote good person. He’s just good with people and understanding human nature.
He’s also extremely good at networking. He knows everyone across different industries. He taught me the importance of showing up at an event. Don’t talk to people you already know—you’re here to network and to do that in different spaces. When we worked in New York, we’d take trips to Harlem to visit an entrepreneur or go downtown, and it was just amazing to watch him be able to adapt to different environments and to really be present in those environments to understand what was happening from a cultural standpoint. I learned a lot from Josh about people and being present and truly understanding the atmosphere that we were in.
As for what he learned from me, you’d have to ask him about that. But he continues to be a great friend and mentor and I’m very honored to have him in my life as a mentor and as a guide through this process.
Go out and do it on your own
David: It sounded like Josh was a big proponent or fan of you launching off on your own with your next fund and activity that you’re doing now. Why would he support that? It sounded like he was a big fan of: Go out and do it on your own.
Kesha: That’s a great question. We met in 2010. After Wall Street and prior to Columbia Business School, I worked with very small lifestyle types of businesses in Los Angeles. The majority of those companies were led by entrepreneurs of color. That’s where I discovered this amazing talent that was disconnected from resources, and I applied to Columbia Business School with this idea of supporting and helping to build this ecosystem and getting more resources to diverse entrepreneurs. Right.
When I met Josh, I told him that I applied to business school with this idea. My business school essay said I wanted to raise $3 million to invest in these early stage companies. So when I met Josh, he’s like, Look, you know, you don’t have a track record. It’s gonna be really difficult for you to actually raise a fund. At this point, work with me. I have the capital, we can do deals. You go and find those deals, we’ll build it and they’ll come. The good thing about Josh Mailman is that he takes action. He’s catalytic, he takes action, he’s spent years trying to figure this out with me.
So we met and he understood my purpose and intentionality and we got to work. What started out as a, hey, come work with me for a year to identify some investments to do some deals, turned into a three year partnership at Serious Change. We got to the point where I said, Hey, I think I’m ready to create this independent fund, and he and Serious Change supported that. From our initial meeting, there was the intent that I would at some point spin off and raise an independent fund. And he held true to our handshake agreement. I’m thankful for that.
David: I mean, that’s a classic example of Give First. Knowing that he was going to train you up and then lose you—but that in another way he would get back from it because you would be carrying some of that business philosophy out into the world. Maybe even improving it a little bit.
The bottom line for impact investing
David: Any time I talk to someone who identifies as an impact investor, I like to throw out some data that we have here at Techstars, and you’ll probably identify with this.
We now have the Techstars Impact Accelerator down in Texas. We work with the Nature Conservancy. We have a farm to fork program. So we are doing more and more in quote unquote the space. As we did that, we really looked at the definitions of what we are looking for in those programs and found that 15% to 20% of what we’ve been doing all along falls pretty cleanly into this category of impact. And we pulled that cohort out. We’re investors in about 2,000 companies. So we’re talking a couple of hundred companies, maybe 200-300 companies that would meet this impact definition. And as a cohort they were performing better than the total cohort of all companies. So impact is not just about that second bottom line. It’s also about that first bottom line. And I’m sure you would agree.
Kesha: That’s true.
Rapid Fire Round
David: What’s your favorite city everybody should visit?
Kesha: New York City
David: Awesome. That’s a popular one. I think everybody wants to go there if they haven’t been there. I know why.
Kesha: I’m taking a red eye there tonight, so it’s top of mind.
David: You’ll be nice and rested tomorrow, I’m sure. How about a great book that you’ve read recently that you want people to know about?
Kesha: Oh, I’m almost finished with it. It’s called The Wisdom of Finance.
David: Any charities that you’d urge people to get involved with or take a look at?
Kesha: The Sponsors for Educational Opportunity. I participated in this organization while in college and was placed in my Wall Street position, and I think they are single handedly responsible for diversifying Wall Street. I encourage everyone to support them.
David: That’s awesome. As a thank you for being on the show, we’re going to do a donation to them, and also do one to the Techstars Foundation, which is focused on diversity and inclusion in tech, in your name, if that’s okay.
Kesha: Oh, excellent. Thank you. That’s wonderful.
David: We appreciate you coming on the show. Last one. If you have, if you could have dinner with anyone, they don’t have to be alive, who would it be?
David: It’s more fun if they’re alive. But let’s imagine that you could do it at any point in history is what I mean by that.
Kesha: Given the times that we’re in right now, I want to go back and be part of the conversations with some of our great civil rights leaders. Malcolm, Martin, some of the philosophers, I’m kind of going back a little further. W.E.B. Dubois. I think we’re in cycles. You can obviously read the books, but to be able to sit down and understand the philosophy and the lessons learned from different eras in time, I think would be extremely helpful right now.
David: That’s a whole party. I’ll give it to you. We’re looking for one person, but you can have a party. That’s cool.
Kesha, thanks so much for taking the time to join us on Give First. Best of luck with Impact America. Really appreciate you joining us today.
Kesha: Thank you, David, for all that you do as well.
From Google for Startups to Startup Weekend to Rise of the Rest and beyond, Mary Grove is passionate about community-driven change, and helping make it happen.
Mary Grove is passionate about community-driven change, and this theme has guided her entire career.
She joined Google when it had only 2000 employees, and by the time she left it was up to around 75,000. Over 14 years, she went from working on the IPO deal team to starting Google for Startups.
Google for Startups’ very first partner was Startup Weekend, which Mary helped to spread from a few dozen to 140 countries, vastly broadening its impact.
Today, she’s a partner at Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, the co-founder of Silicon North Stars, and on the Advisory Board for the Techstars Foundation.
Mary talks with Brad Feld about the joys of empowering entrepreneurs across the globe, and the transformations she has seen.
This is #GiveFirst at scale. We love it.
Companies, resources, and people mentioned in this podcast:
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
Be Fearless, by Jean Case
Google for Entrepreneurs – became Google for Startups
UP Global – acquired by Techstars
Edited highlights from the conversation:
Google for Startups, Startup Weekend, & Techstars
Brad: Let’s start off by hearing a story about how you ended up at Google working on Google for Entrepreneurs.
Mary: Sure. I had the great privilege of joining Google in 2004. I was coming out of Stanford on my way to law school, and I thought I would just pause for a year or so and take a job at what was then a small company called Google. I joined the legal team back in 2004, and I actually worked on the IPO deal team for my first year, which was a fascinating and wonderful experience, with the process of going public and really being part of a very fast growing organization.
When I joined Google, we were about 2000 people. When I left almost exactly a year ago, Google was about 75,000 people. So it was a great 14 year run where I learned a tremendous amount, and I’m super grateful for the experience.
Brad: Going from a startup of 2000 to 75,000 employees is quite a change.
Mary: It really was. And it was really remarkable, Brad, to watch our co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin on that journey and see how they were able to scale the culture.
As the organization scaled to be that large, I had the opportunity to travel to probably about 40 different countries to visit Google offices, and I was always so struck by the fact that each office had its local flavor and honored the local country, but really also had such a consistency of culture and spirit. I’m happy to talk more about some of those values, which are certainly core core lessons that I carry with me today.
Brad: You were at Google for a long time, but there was a shift in your role at some point from the operating business in the legal group to this new thing that got created called Google for Entrepreneurs. My guess is many of our listeners know what Google for Entrepreneurs is, but maybe talk about it for a few minutes, how it got started, and what your initial involvement was.
Mary: After my work on the IPO, we were a public company. I then spent the next six years as a part of a team called new business development, which was led by Megan Smith, one of Google’s most amazing leaders. I worked for her for six years and that team was really working on early stage product, business development, expansion into emerging markets. That’s where I truly fell in love with the company—certainly the culture, but also what was happening on the business and product side, particularly around access.
I spent a lot of time working on emerging markets and very emerging markets. We had a project called the bottom 20, which was looking at the twenty least connected countries in the world from an access and infrastructure perspective. We put together a cross functional Google team focused on how Google could help both from a Google Inc. perspective and also from a Google.org philanthropic perspective. I had the opportunity to spend time in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, the West Bank. Really, through that journey, what was most exciting to me was the opportunity that entrepreneurship created in these markets.
Google could have a direct impact. If we could help fuel and foster startup communities, that would build a platform for true economic development locally and globally.
Fast forward to 2011. Our senior leadership team at Google recognized that so many teams across Google were dabbling in activities supporting startups, but there wasn’t a consolidated, proactive effort around this. I had the opportunity to give some thought to that, based on the work that I had been doing on Megan Smith’s team, and essentially pitch what became a new team.
That’s Google for Entrepreneurs, which today is called Google for Startups.
Essentially our mission was to bring the best of Google’s resources to accelerate the growth of startups and entrepreneurial ecosystems. That included our capital, our talent, our technology. That’s actually what led me to the journey to meeting Startup Weekend and ultimately Techstars. Google for Entrepreneurs was a really amazing part of my Google experience. Through that we partnered with about 60 organizations, who I really believe are best-in-class groups like Startup Grind, Startup Weekend, Techstars. You name the continent, we were able to be there supporting the greatest community leaders. And it was a great time.
Brad: Our first introduction was made by Mark Nager around Startup Weekend on some kind of video thing that we did together around 2011-ish talking about startup communities. I’m not 100% sure that’s right. But that’s what I kind of vaguely remember.
Mary: I think we did a Google hangout.
Brad: What are some of your recollections around those early experiences that you had with Startup Weekend and it’s evolution towards what ultimately became UP Global?
Mary: Startup Weekend has a truly dear place in my heart and my memory. We started Google for Entrepreneurs back in 2011, and immediately we believed that partnerships would be a fundamental part of the work. There would be some direct work that Google did in the field, but really the way to get scale and impact was by working with best-in-class partners.
The very first partnership we ever signed was with Startup Weekend in 2011. I had attended an early Startup Weekend a couple of years back when I lived in New York City. I was really, really impressed with the format, so I caught up with Mark Nager and told him that we just believed in the power of this 54 hour event format and the fact that it was all about community-driven change. Our partnership really was to enable Startup Weekend to take that model and expand it from a few dozen countries ultimately into 140 countries. That was important in Google for Entrepreneurs’ history, because we found a partner who so fully aligned with us from both a mission and an execution perspective. They assembled a fantastic board with really great talent, which is how I was connected to you—and the rest is history.
Brad: What was your first memory of Techstars and your first involvement with Techstars?
Mary: We got very involved with Startup Weekend, which ultimately became UP Global, as you mentioned. Then when UP Global and Techstars merged, our relationship only continued to grow from there. Through Google for Entrepreneurs, we expanded the partnership with Techstars to continue to support those programs, as well as additional work including the Techstars Foundation. I was very struck by the scale and the breadth of Techstars in terms of the geographic reach, the sector reach, and the consistent quality across the board, which I think is really, really hard to achieve at scale.
Another touch point I have now is in my new home city of Minneapolis, where this past year I served as a mentor in both programs here, both the Techstars Retail and the Techstars Farm to Fork accelerators. Those were really fantastic—to get to actually see a full program from start to finish, to meet every one of the companies and even follow up with them. I’m still in touch with some now in due diligence for investment opportunities, and that’s just from two of the programs. I continue to enjoy that relationship.
The third piece is that I am on the advisory board of the Techstars Foundation, which I just absolutely love. I think that’s the embodiment of the Gift First mantra, which Techstars has always had. Formalizing that in the form of a foundation that not only supports entrepreneurs directly, but supports the community leaders who enable them—there are so few groups out there that do that. I myself also run a nonprofit called Silicon North Stars, and I know firsthand that it can be hard to find organizations who actually fund the organizations doing the work. I really applaud Techstars for the foundation initiative.
Rapid Fire Round
Brad: What’s your favorite city in the world?
Mary: I would say New York City. I had the opportunity to live there for five years during my time at Google, and I just felt like it was an extraordinary melting pot of hopes and dreams, energy and electricity, and the exposure to so many different cultures. It’s not a city that I spend much time in these days, but it is very close to my heart and one that I deeply love.
Brad: Great. Second: an impactful book that you’ve read recently.
Mary: I’m just about to finish up Jean Case’s book Be Fearless, which is her newest release. We talk a lot about how to create a strong culture of entrepreneurship. I do believe that so much of it is the culture. By that I mean this lack of fear of failure, embracing this notion that it’s okay to put it out there, to iterate quickly, to get harsh feedback immediately, and to pick up and keep moving on. I really appreciate all of the stories that she weaves in. They’re very practical advice that is super helpful for any entrepreneur, but especially for those who are just starting out. It can be a daunting journey.
Brad: I read a prerelease of the book and I thought Jean did a fantastic job. I’d echo that recommendation: it’s inspirational as well as instructive. Jean did a great job of not just curating the stories but also weaving her own experience through those stories. It’s a fun one.
Next up: favorite charity and why?
Mary: This is a very biased answer, and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to self plug here, but the charity that is dearest to my heart is a nonprofit called Silicon North Stars, which my husband Steve and I started together in 2013. At the time we were both living in Silicon Valley and working at Google. We recently moved to Minnesota. Steve is from here originally. I was born in Iowa and we both have a ton of family here in the Midwest. We started to look at Silicon North Stars as a way to really build a bridge from the communities we were from to where we lived. Our mission is to inspire and educate young Minnesotans towards futures in tech. We specifically target economically underserved youth. Every year we choose a cohort of a couple of dozen rising ninth graders and we take them on a trip to Silicon Valley for a week, expose them to all the magic there, come back to Minnesota, and then provide them with year-round programming and support for the next four years of high school until they start college.
This was a personal passion project. We bootstrapped it because we were both very privileged to come from entrepreneurial families, who to me embody the American dream. We wanted to give others that opportunity as well. We’re very grateful that the organization has scaled. Now we’re back in Minnesota, so we’re actually expanding the program for 2019. I should mention, Brad, that Techstars has been hugely helpful locally.
Brad: Homestretch. Last question. Who is a person that you’ve never met—either alive or dead—who you’d love to have dinner with?
Mary: I would say Michelle Obama. I’ve also just finished reading Becoming, her memoir, and I have always been a huge fan of the causes that she advocates for. I would love to have the opportunity to dine with her and to really pick her brain on how to apply some of those themes to our daily work and our daily life.
Over the years, a #GiveFirst network will reward its members time and time again. Troy Henikoff looks back at 2009, when he first encountered Techstars and was so inspired he started his own accelerator—with some help from the Techstars Network. A decade later, that accelerator is now Techstars Chicago, and Troy is Managing Director of MATH Ventures. You never know where #GiveFirst will take you—but you do know you’ll never have to go it alone.
How does a startup ecosystem grow? #GiveFirst is one essential element.
Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of MATH Ventures and Co-founder of Excelerate Labs, which became Techstars Chicago, remembers the early days of Chicago’s startup ecosystem, and how #GiveFirst helped it grow.
One of the difficult things about describing the impact of #GiveFirst is that, over time, there are so many effects. Troy spends time in this episode telling stories about how giving and mentoring have changed his life and the lives of lots of founders, in Chicago, Boulder, and beyond.
It’s a tangled web of awesome, where a decade after Troy’s first interaction with Techstars, there are so many winners it’s hard to keep track. And the wins just keep piling up.
Companies, resources, and people mentioned in this podcast:
The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? By Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi
How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone, by Brian McCullough
Next Big Sound – acquired by Pandora
Edited highlights from the conversation:
The origins of Techstars Chicago, and the power of a Give First network:
David: We’re really excited to have Troy on Give First today. Troy is one of the partners and founders of MATH Venture Partners, and we’ve known Troy for a long time. Troy is one of the reasons that Techstars is in Chicago, he was the managing director at Techstars Chicago and before that at Excelerate Labs, which was a fantastic accelerator. So we have a lot of history with Troy. Troy, welcome to the show. We’re really glad to have you today.
A lot of people might have heard the story of how we first met and how Excelerate Labs and Techstars came together. But a lot of people haven’t. I think it’s a really interesting story, so I wanted to give you some space to talk about that.
Troy: Yeah, it was fascinating. In 2008 I had been teaching entrepreneurship at Northwestern for awhile and I had some students in my class who were just different: Alex, David, and Samir. They were better than any other students I had had up to that point. When they did their final project, they presented their business plan, and all of the judges came up to me after and asked if they were doing this company for real, or if it was just for class. If it was for real, they wanted to talk to them. They were doing this thing around music and the internet and we rounded up about $25,000 in seed capital, which we had never done for undergrad students before.
They struggled for a while, and they really tried to get this thing off the ground. In 2009, Alex, the CEO, had graduated and David and Samir were still seniors in college, and they got accepted into this thing in Boulder called Techstars that I had never heard of before. When they told me about it, it sounded like they were going to get some capital and mentorship and spend the summer in Boulder, which sounded awesome. So they piled into David’s VW and drove down to Boulder to be part of the program.
David: You know, before they did that, Troy, I had to fly out to Chicago, and I met them in the airport. I remember it vividly.
Troy: I’ve heard that a little bit about this story. Yeah. To persuade them.
David: I used to fly to the airport of whatever town companies were in and take a meeting in the airport and then fly back. I remember meeting those guys, all just sitting in those crappy airport seats.
Troy: They came down to Techstars and—as it’s been told to me—they got there and on about day two of the program, they said this dog isn’t going to hunt, and they thought their business was doomed. David, you were there, so you can tell me a little more about what happened then.
David: They walked in—it was day two of the accelerator program—they said that they just didn’t believe in their business anymore. They were sort of saying, “We’re not sure we believed in it when you funded us.”
Our reaction was: okay, cool. Let’s figure out what we should do, because the investments is in you, not in this particular idea. We weren’t too sure about it either. So we just started brainstorming, and I remember a big whiteboard session that day.
Troy: Fast forward to the end of the program, 88 days later. I was down in Boulder for Demo Day and Alex did an amazing job with his pitch. I think he was asking for $350,000 in seed capital to launch this new thing around music on the internet that he called Next Big Sound. There was a line of investors waiting to invest. He actually ended up raising over $1 million in that round, turning people away. It was one of my first angel investments.
It was that day that I realized a couple of things. One was how awesome the program was for Alex, David, and Samir. It took them with this nascent idea that wasn’t going to work. It helped them figure out how to pivot, how to find a real business model, how to raise money—raise over a million dollars—and how to go into business. That was phenomenal.
The second thing was that there were a handful of us from Chicago who happened to be there. Techstars had just expanded to Boston. You had 10 companies in Boulder, nine in Boston. Of those 19 companies, five came from Chicago. That was awesome, except they all left and didn’t come back. Next Big Sound set up camp in Boulder because that’s where their lead investors were. They never made it back to Chicago.
I remember the date, August 6, 2009. There were a handful of us who were there, and we realized we wanted to do this in Chicago. So we reached out to you and to Brad and said, “Hey, will you do this in Chicago?”
I remember you came up to Chicago with Shaun, the managing director from the Boston program. We talked about setting up Techstars in Chicago, and then you pulled me aside and said, “We’re kind of busy. It’s under the radar, but we’re launching New York and Seattle. We don’t have the bandwidth to do this. We’re really focused on quality over quantity. We think you should do it. We’ll share docs and best practices with you, but it’s gotta be your thing.”
A handful of us—Sam Yagan, I2A Fund, and Sandbox Industries—decided we were going to do it. We launched an accelerator called Excelerate Labs just six months later. We ran in 2010.
You were super helpful. I remember we were on the phone with you asking questions all the time. And it was a great class. It did amazingly well. We did it again a second year, a third year, and then, at the end of 2012, Brad came up to Chicago and told us that he loved what was going on in Chicago.
Brad said, “You’ve got all this activity in the ecosystem, with 1871 and more, and we really want to have a presence here for Techstars, but we don’t want to compete with you. Would you consider joining forces and changing the name on the door?”
I thought it was an awesome opportunity to join the Techstars Network and have a reach that was much bigger than Chicago. We wanted to be part of that big network of mentors and investors and entrepreneurs.
It came full circle and we became Techstars Chicago.
It was a couple of years after that, 2014 or 2015, I think—Next Big Sound was acquired by Pandora, and that was awesome for those guys. It was a great event. It was great for the investors.
I got a nice return on my investment, and Alex sent me a really heartfelt handwritten note. He talked about how he wouldn’t have been where he is without that first class and without my support and mentorship. I was reading it, and while it made me feel warm and nice, something didn’t feel right. It just didn’t settle right. It took a minute for me to realize—wait a minute, I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for Alex, David, and Samir having found Techstars and introduced me to that program.
When I look back at my personal trajectory over the last 10 years, the seminal event was Boulder Demo Day, August 6, 2009, when this ‘Aha’ moment happened of, “Oh my God, I want to be part of this network. I want to help entrepreneurs like this.” Without that, I wouldn’t have run an accelerator, I wouldn’t have run a venture fund, I wouldn’t have invested in all these companies. I wrote Alex back a note telling him: you’re mistaken, you’ve had a bigger influence on my life than I’ve had on yours.
David: Wow. What an incredible story.
I think a lot of people take this idea of Give First, and they know it’s not transactional, but if I help you, you know, someday it’ll come back to me. What I just heard is a story of Giving First coming back to everybody in different ways, right?
Because I feel the same way. Having the chance to work with you and building the Techstars brand in Chicago. And the Next Big Sound guys are coming back literally a week from when we’re recording this to help us with some new company ideation talks, and they’re investing now—they have Next Big Ventures. That’s their venture fund. That’s right.
It’s a network of effects that have happened because of the early Give First of you helping them in class and Techstars helping accelerate them a little bit early on—it just continues in this virtuous cycle. Give First is so much more than: I’ll do one thing and I’ll get something back. You just never know how it’s going to build upon itself to get really powerful for everybody involved.
Troy: I never would have imagined where this would have taken me when we first started. Excelerate Labs didn’t have any office space, didn’t know what a Demo Day was. We didn’t even have internet. We use wireless modems hanging out the window to provide internet to 30 founders. It was pretty ridiculous. Today, it’s pretty awesome to see all the companies that have gone through the program, and to be part of that worldwide network to help entrepreneurs.
The ripple effect
Troy: The first year we did Excelerate Labs it was really fun and new and it felt like we were building something cool. Then the second year we were doing it, and we didn’t have a budget, and I think that year I got paid less than a Barista at Starbucks. You know, my wife was a little pissed at that. But I was in a position where I could afford to do it. I wasn’t worried about how it was going to pay rent next month. It turned out that that decision to build Excelerate Labs, now Techstars Chicago, paid such huge dividends in the long run.
I never would have been in the position I’m in today without it. I wouldn’t have been offered the positions teaching at Booth or at Kellogg that I did. I wouldn’t have been able to start a venture fund. I mean, I’m sure it would have been fine, but I can trace so much of where I am today and the entrepreneurs I’ve gotten to engage with and to help to that early decision to volunteer time and start this thing called Excelerate Labs. It has had such an impact on my life and hopefully a ripple effect impact on dozens and dozens and dozens of others as well.
David: No doubt about that ripple effect. And hopefully any baristas listening are not offended.
Rapid Fire Round
David: I’m going to ask you four quick questions. You rapid fire answers. We just want to get people some new ideas.
We’ll start with this. Other than Chicago, what’s your favorite city?
Troy: I would probably say Wellington, New Zealand. I love New Zealand. I love all of the diversity of nature that it has to offer. Wellington has this cool little pocket of interesting people, cool coffee shops, a startup ecosystem. If I could move anywhere in the world with a snap of my fingers, it’d be Wellington.
David: I may see you there. It’s not a long drive from Queenstown, which I love.
What’s a great book you’ve read recently that you would recommend?
Troy: How the Internet Happened, which tells the story from the first browsers all the way through the launch of the iPhone. It was fascinating to me, having lived through all of that, to hear the inside story of what was really happening inside and how. All of those steps from MySpace to Facebook—they all impacted our lives in such incredible ways. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the first iPhone, I was like, wait, you have a phone that has no keys on it? That was just the craziest thing. Now we just accept that standard. It was a great book.
David: Okay. We’ll check it out. What charity would you urge people to get involved with?
Troy: Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. My daughter had a pretty serious health issue 10+ years ago, and she had brain surgery. She is an amazing kid and has done amazingly well—she’s awesome and perfect and about to go off to college. We attribute that success to Lurie Children’s Hospital. Every year we try to support them the best that we can. I think that there’s nothing better we can do than to support future generations, whether in their health or their education. I’m always looking to support the next generation.
David: Awesome. Last question. Outside of your immediate family and, of course, present company, who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
Troy: Probably one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met was Leon Lederman. Many people won’t recognize him. He was a Nobel laureate and a physicist. He invented the term ‘the God Particle,’ and he passed away recently. He was an amazing man, first of all, incredibly smart. I got to sit down at dinner with him and talk with him about any topic in physics. He had such passion and drive and creativity. And then he turned that into creating something amazing for the state of Illinois, which is the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a publicly funded high school. It’s a boarding school for the top math and science students in Illinois. Every year they take about 200 or 250 students, and it’s had a huge impact. So I think Leon Lederman was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in person.
David: Super Cool. Troy, thank you so much for sharing. Congrats on everything you’ve done in Chicago. And of course everybody should check out MATH Venture Partners. Thanks for being here, Troy.
Troy: Thank you for all you’ve built with Techstars.
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.