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.
#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.
Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the very first podcast from Techstars: the Give First podcast. Brad Feld and I are co-hosting this weekly podcast that digs into what Give First means.
I can tell you that I’m having a great time making it, and I’ve already learned so much from the people we’ve had as guests.
What is Give First?
Give First is one of our core values here at Techstars. It means helping others with no specific expectation of return. It’s not transactional—it’s the idea that if you’re helpful, it will come back to you in completely unexpected ways.
Why Make a Podcast?
This is great, but I know it can sound a little abstract if you haven’t experienced it yourself. You may be wondering if it really works. Do busy people—and entrepreneurs are notoriously busy people—actually stop and Give First?
Yes, it really works.
I hope that you listen to the Give First podcast for insights into how exciting and successful a life and career guided by the principle of Give First can be. Here are just a few examples from the first few episodes:
- Hear Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, tell the story of being mobbed in Times Square like a rock star when Sphero’s toy BB8 was the number one toy in the world.
- Listen to Wendy Lea talk about the risks of saying “no” when opportunity comes knocking.
- Troy Henikoff tells a decade worth of Give First stories that all intertwine—and resulted in companies growing, careers thriving, and millions in funds being raised, all while the Chicago startup ecosystem is expanding.
- Mary Grove shows the power of Give First at scale, with her adventures in community-driven change, starting Google for Startups and traveling on the Rise of the Rest bus.
Like I said, Brad and I are having a blast making the Give First podcast. We get to have fascinating conversations with accomplished, generous people. But most of all, Brad and I are making this podcast as yet another way to Give First. We hope that by sharing these stories with you, you’ll be inspired to Give First as well.
Listen now to our introductory conversation, where Brad and I talk about where the idea for Give First came from and what it means to each of us. And subscribe to the Give First podcast!
This fall, at our FounderCon conference in Cincinnati, we began a new tradition called the Give First awards. We decided we wanted to recognize founders and mentors from our global network who consistently live this core value of Techstars.
The idea behind #givefirst is that we try to be helpful without any specific expectation of return and in a non-transactional way. In short, if we can be helpful, then we want to be helpful.
Here are the founders and mentors who we recognized this year for how they live this value.
David Mandell is the co-founder and CEO of PivotDesk (Boulder ‘12) and a Techstars mentor. David shows up and helps at so many Techstars locations. He’s mentored at Patriot Boot Camp (a non-profit we funded early on and helped launch). He shows up at Techstars accelerator programs around the world and meets with companies because he loves being helpful. I suspect that he’s mentored in more locations than any other Techstars mentor. He’s consistently rated as a top mentor at these programs he visits.
John Guydon is the founder and CEO of the Lassy Project (Boulder ‘14). I love working with John because of his “straight talk.” He’s not afraid to tell us how we’re screwing up or how we could do something better on behalf of everyone in the network. At the same time, he’s incredibly generous with his time and a great representative of our alumni.
Rami Essaid is co-founder of Distil Networks (Cloud ‘12) which has grown into a very valuable company. However, just because Rami is the CEO of Distil, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and he is constantly giving back to Techstars by mentoring, hosting alumni gatherings, sponsoring FounderCon, and more.
Thanks to everyone in the network for all that you do. Learn more about Give First in this video.