“Every opportunity I’ve gotten in my life has been provided by a network,” said Sky Kelley, Founder and CEO of Avisare. She values them so highly that her own company, Avisare, is itself a network, connecting small business owners with government contracts, and building diversity and inclusion into the process. She’s seen the power of networks, and now she’s created a new one to level the playing field for companies owned or founded by women or people from historically underrepresented groups.
“Networking can get a bad rep,” Sky explained. “But for me, networking is about getting to know people and forming relationships. It’s about being genuine and being interested in people. It’s about giving as much as you get.”
Techstars Founder Experience: Sky Kelley, Founder of Avisare - YouTube
“I didn’t know how important and valuable the network would be here until I got into Techstars,” Sky said. She applied to Techstars LA because she wanted to #DoMoreFaster: “I heard that businesses get better when they go through the Techstars program. I wanted to learn quickly and not make avoidable mistakes. The biggest element that none of us in the startup space have is time. If you can learn really quickly, that can be the difference between success and failure.”
What she discovered once in program was that it was the Techstars Network that let her learn so fast. “Being in the program, I honed my chops. I became a better leader, a better strategist,” Sky said. She met with mentors who were experts in branding, hiring, managing talent, fundraising, scaling businesses, and more. “You can find all this expertise through the Techstars Network.” In her business, Sky has to deal with lumpy revenue streams, where cash flow comes in a torrent, and then slows to a trickle. She connected with people who had experience with this type of revenue stream, and could help her manage her cash flow.
“I can get a connection to anyone I need through the Techstars Network. Whatever your business is, you can find people who can help you get better in any area of growing your business,” Sky said. “Not enough people understand how important that is.”
What this means is that even now, more than a year after Demo Day, Sky can still count on the Techstars Network to help her solve problems. She can find experts from around the world who have dealt with the issues her company is facing now. That’s what #TechstarsForLife really means.
The Power of Networks
Sky is passionate about networks, and what they can achieve: “Networks are about people helping other people. Period. And we all need help in this world.”
Sky knew about the power of networks even before Techstars. She grew up in a mostly low-income, mostly African-American community. It was a human connection that helped her get into a private, all-girls school starting at age 10. It was a human connection that helped her get her first job on Wall Street.
These—and a thousand more examples—showed Sky the power of networks, of people helping people. Throughout her life, she saw inequalities in the world, and wanted to do something to make a change.
The B2B space is where Sky feels comfortable. “I’m not a B2C person. I don’t understand consumers. I’ve never been one for trends or fads.” Instead, she looked for an opportunity that aligned with her mission.
Many governments, at every level, have requirements for them to work with small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses. Sky saw an opportunity to provide a better way to accomplish their mutual goals. Governments need small businesses to work with. Sky wanted to help provide opportunities for these same people. “It’s a really scalable way to make an impact,” Sky said. “I wanted to work on solutions that scale.”
That’s both good business and a great way to make a big social impact.
The Worldwide Network that helps Entrepreneurs Succeed
When a network operates on the principle of #GiveFirst, each member gives without expecting to receive something back from the recipient. Instead, they know that at some point down the line, someone else will #GiveFirst to them. When it’s a worldwide network of entrepreneurs, more businesses succeed, creating more jobs and more wealth in communities around the globe, all because people are helping each other, learning from each other, and giving to each other.
This is the power of entrepreneurship, and why Techstars is, fundamentally, a network. Because by intentionally creating a diverse and inclusive network of great entrepreneurs, we create new paths to success for people from every background. If you have a great idea and a great team, Techstars can give you the network you need to help your business succeed.
How did Sphero CEO Paul Berberian make the number one toy in the world? Sphero got to make the BB8 toy robot because of a connection made during a Techstars accelerator. That’s the power of the network. Hear him tell that story, and more.
Have you ever been mobbed in Times Square, like a rock star? Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, the company that makes BB8, at one time the number one toy in the world, has.
Paul talks about how mentoring and Give First were essential to Sphero getting the BB8 gig.
He loves mentoring as well, and describes the experience of being a mentor and having a positive experience on someone’s life as “addictive.”
Listen for more on the transformative nature of mentorship—from both sides—plus more behind the scenes details on how one of the best loved Star Wars toys came to be.
Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:
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.
We’re proud of Zipline for joining the unicorn club—but even more proud of all the lives they save
Team, team, and team. That’s what Techstars looks for in the startups we admit to our mentorship-driven accelerator programs, and the success and impact of Zipline, founded by Keller Rinaudo, shows why.
Zipline joined the exclusive unicorn club just a few days ago, joining Techstars companies SendGrid, PillPack, Digital Ocean, and DataRobot. But the company wasn’t always in the business of saving lives, or even running drones. When they first joined Techstars, they weren’t even called Zipline.
Crowdfunding an adorable robot
Keller was part of Techstars Seattle Class 12 in the fall of 2011. Back then, his company was called Romotive, and it focused on turneding smartphones intoadorable robots. This was a pretty cool idea. But far more importantly, the Techstars Seattle team saw in Keller both passion for his robots and the crucial ability to receive feedback well, learn from constructive criticism, and make big changes when the situation called for it. They were right, and Keller has applied these skills over the past eight years to get to where he is today.
Shortly after they finished the program, Romotive set out to crowdfund on Kickstarter with a goal of $32,000. They raised $114,796. In fall 2012, they closed a $5 million Series A just as they were returning to Kickstarter in 2012 a second time, intentionally using the crowdfunding platform as a tool to build community, ultimately raising $170,034 on their $100,000 goal. Press like TechCrunch, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal took notice.
Just a year out of program, and Keller and his team were doing everything right—and succeeding.
The long trip from A to B
But, as often happens in the startup world, things didn’t stay easy. In 2016, Zipline announced a $25 million Series B—five years after the original company launch. In the intervening years, especially when they stopped supporting Romo the robot, some reporters thought that the company was dead.
As it turns out, that was just the beginning of the really good stuff. Toy robots are great, and lots of kids were surely inspired to pursue their love of science and engineering by Romo the robot. We intend no disrespect for that early phase of the company—remember, that’s when we invested. But saving lives by airlifting blood to people in remote areas of Rwanda is the kind of thing that reinforces our belief that entrepreneurs make the world a better place.
The two things that made me want to start Romotive were that we thought there was this scale of smart phone components making new things possible in robotics and all this amazing new technology and no one was building something important with it for people’s lives.
Those two things are the guiding principles for everything we do here. What I’ve learned is we should set our sights higher and we should focus on things that would have a profound impact on people’s lives.
The value you can provide by seeing that someone is dying and they can’t get access to basic medical products and you can deliver it fast is so direct. Robots are really efficient at doing repetitive tasks. I’ve really sought out some of the most boring repetitive tasks on the planet and picked the ones I thought were the most important.
In that same interview, Pando founder Sarah Lacey asked Keller why he didn’t just close Romotive and start new. Here’s what he said: “I was 23 when I started this company and whole bunch of people believed in me. And you know, they believed in a very zany idea. Many people didn’t think a robotics company could be valuable at all. And when we decided we needed to build a very different product, it seemed the right thing to do to stay as the same company and double down and survive and prove that faith was well founded.”
We were some of those people who believed in Keller from the very start.
With this newly announced round of funding, CNBC reports that Zipline will set up delivery hubs at 2,600 health facilities in Rwanda and Ghana by the end of 2019, and it will start delivering medical supplies in the U.S. soon, starting in North Carolina. Each distribution center has the capacity to complete 500 deliveries, which translates to up to one ton of medicine and blood products, each day, according to the Zipline website.
CNBC also reports that so far, in Rwanda, Zipline drones have made more than 13,000 deliveries.
We at Techstars are hugely proud of Keller, his team, and Zipline for this $1.2 billion valuation. But we’re even more proud of them for truly making the world a better place.
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.”
Techstars Founder Experience: Michael Maylahn & Dinesh Seemakurty, Co-founders of STASIS - YouTube
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.
In 2006, Techstars launched with the simple belief that entrepreneurs build a better future. Twelve years and over 1700 portfolio companies later, we’ve watched this belief be confirmed year after year in all corners of the world.
Still, 2018 represented a notable milestone for Techstars, we launched Techstars Impact, our first impact fund, exclusively dedicated to backing entrepreneurs tackling our most pressing global challenges.
With Techstars Impact, we believe that our deepest problem sets represent our greatest opportunities. We put founders at the center of our strategy to build a better future, and believe that entrepreneurs have the potential to deliver scalable solutions to some of our generation’s most pressing problems. As a venture investor in impact, the core of our approach aligning financial returns with impact outcomes is to focus on areas where an opportunity directly aligns with a large market opportunity. While leveraging our insights from over a decade of investing in seed stage companies around the world, we built an impact investment strategy that also naturally aligns with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
Since 2018 the Techstars Impact funds have made 44 investments with a footprint across six continents. Collectively, these companies have created over 500 jobs and directly impacted 3.7 million people around the globe.
This Impact Report highlights our approach and investment activity since January 2018, as well as some of the direct and systemic impact delivered by Techstars portfolio companies receiving investment from our Techstars Impact 2018 SPV and Techstars Impact 2018 Accelerator funds.
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.
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.
Katica Roy is on a mission to close the gender equity gap—in her lifetime. And she has a formula for how to do it. It’s a formula that other entrepreneurs can use to tackle other large, seemingly intractable social problems.
The key is to turn a social problem into an economic opportunity.
“If we only view gender equity through the lens of a social issue, of fairness, then it becomes debatable,” Katica said. By making it into an economic issue, she changed the conversation from whether gender equity makes good moral sense to whether it makes good business sense. The latter is much more persuasive to CEOs responsible for maximizing shareholder value.
This was the crucial insight that persuaded Katica to found her company, Pipeline. Pipeline uses AI to increase companies’ financial performance by closing the gender equity gap.
How did Katica turn her critical realization into a successful company? Three steps.
Step 1: Research
“We didn’t start with the tech,” Katica said. “We started with research.”
Katica began with a hypothesis: from the macroeconomic perspective, gender equity is an economic opportunity. Katica and her team conducted research across 4,161 companies in 29 countries and found that for every 10 percent increase in gender equity, there is a one to two percent increase in revenue.
Other research backs her up. A McKinsey Global Institute report from 2015 found that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. In a 2018 report, Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist, and Jason Gold, global head of strategic relations and partnerships at S&P Global, found that the U.S. economy would be $1.6 trillion larger than it is today, and grow at a 3.1 percent pace—if women stayed in the workforce at the same pace as they do in Norway.
With the numbers on her side, Katica’s next challenge was to shift the perspective from big picture macroeconomics down to the level of an individual company’s success.
Step 2: Listening
With her research done and her hypothesis validated, Katica could have jumped in and built a platform. But she didn’t. Instead, she spent two months working with her team on a social listening campaign, during which she got 18 million impressions, and gathered a lot of valuable insights.
According to Katica, this was an absolutely essential step in the process: “In order to change the narrative around gender equity, you have to include more voices.”
After all, as she points out, “Gender equity is often viewed as a synonym for women’s rights. However, women are 50% of the conversation, men are the other 50%.” Katica doesn’t want to impact just women or families—she wants to make the world better for everyone.
“For me, this was a deeply personal obligation,” Katica explained. “Millions of people are impacted by a lack of gender equity. We need to be considerate. If we do this badly, we could do damage, and set back the conversation. For us, being thoughtful and inclusive is very important.”
Listening closely to what others had to say about gender equity was a crucial step toward building Pipeline, and building it right.
Step 3: Launch
Pipeline launched its first version in late in 2017 and the full version a few months later. Being mission-driven has helped Katica get both help and recognition for her company.
Last summer, Pipeline was a member of the inaugural class of Techstars Impact Accelerator. She went into the program looking for mentors. She wanted mentors “who didn’t think like us—because we can do that already pretty well.” She wanted people who could point out her team’s blind spots and help refine the product, as well as guide their marketing, PR, and sales efforts. The mentors in the program were everything Katica was looking for.
Though the company is still young, Pipeline, and Katica are already winning awards. From AI Breakthrough Awards for their technology and design to a Gold Stevie® Award (from International Business Awards) that lauded both Pipeline’s mission and business ability. Katica also received recognition from the Denver Business Journal, being named as a 2018 Outstanding Woman in Business. People are clearly taking notice. Most SaaS companies could only dream of this kind of endorsement, but the world-changing mission of the company—along with its excellent execution—elevate Pipeline’s profile.
Getting From There To Here
For other entrepreneurs who are on a mission to make the world a better place, Katica’s process can provide a template for success.
Want to get people, businesses, or governments to change? Find a way to make your passion project an economic necessity. Create a hypothesis about how this works, then do the research to test it. Listen to not just your customers, but also everyone else who cares about your cause as much as you do. Then perfect your tech and launch a great business.
Techstars is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed because we believe entrepreneurs make the world a better place. Katica and Pipeline certainly are. And by following their model, you can, too.
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!
Recently, there have been more news reports about incidents of bullying and mistreatment in the workplace. Last February, Wired exposed employee stories about bullying and mistreatment that allegedly took place at Revolut, a fintech unicorn startup.
What is Workplace Bullying?
But what exactly constitutes bullying? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e. sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”
I asked Eitan Meiri, an expert psychologist in the field of Abuse & Bullying in the workplace, and one of Cassiopeia’s advisors, to identify employees who could be a potential target of workplace bullying.
Meiri said that there are a few common characteristics among employees who suffer from bullying. “Usually, they are people with very high morals, and they won’t ignore corruption or misconduct in the workplace. The targets are usually ‘we’ people rather than ‘me’ people—they prefer to drive results rather than promote themselves or steal the limelight. Also, these employees tend to share knowledge and often positively contribute to the social atmosphere of the team. Basically, everyone would be happy to work with these people.” It’s their very willingness to please that makes them targets.
Meiri went on to explain, “Targets of bullying are usually people that are eager to please—those who want to conform and ‘belong’ as well as avoid conflicts with others. It’s hard for them to set the red line and say—‘no more’.”
Bullying is a health hazard, and it takes a toll on the people being bullied. According to the workplace bullying institute, 41% of employees that experienced bullying were diagnosed with depression, and over 80% reported symptoms that prevented them from being productive at work (severe anxiety, lost concentration, insomnia, etc.), while 21-31% of employees who had been bullied suffered from symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Three Types of Workplace Bullies
How can we identify a potential offender? I asked Meiri if there are any common characteristics that workplace bullies share. “Bullying personalities are opportunistic, overly ambitious, powerful, and usually aggressive,” Meiri said. “The offender usually does not share the target’s positive characteristics, and often feels threatened by them. Furthermore, the target’s positive characteristics make them more vulnerable to being bullied.”
According to Meiri, there are three main types of people that tend to be bullies in the workplace.
The first type are managers who do not have the natural skills to manage other people and have not undergo the right training. These managers are usually very mission-driven, and they don’t realize how their behavior may be harming others.
The second type are employees who have been promoted, and as a result have an inflated sense of entitlement. These employees exploit their new status and the power that comes with it.
The last type are highly manipulative individuals. In the most severe cases, they often suffer from some sort of personality disorder and can be antisocial or narcissistic. Usually, they are very smart and excellent at handling the organization’s inner politics and making a good impression. Given this, it can often take time to identify the damage they are causing to other employees and to the company.
Meiri clarified that “The first two types can be guided, and with the right training and intervention, they can be good managers and employees. However, changing the behavioral pattern of the third type is far more challenging.”
While bullying can have a devastating impact on subjects, the impact of workplace bullying can also be detrimental to companies. Bullying can shatter morale, diminish productivity, lead to high turnover rates, and dent the company’s bottom line with high legal expenses.
Six Steps to Stop Workplace Bullying
The natural follow-up question is how companies can prevent bullying and diminish this silent epidemic.
According to Meiri’s experience working with companies in both the private and public sector, companies should pursue a few key steps in order to prevent bullying in the workplace.
Set a no-tolerance company policy. The first step toward a bully-free workplace is to set a clear company policy that stipulates that bullying in any form will not be tolerated and creates severe consequences for any workplace bully.
Socialize the policy. The policy should be presented inside the company as part of an organized process. Without proper communication about this new bullying policy, it won’t have any actual effects.
Promote anti-bullying training. The training process should be divided into two steps. The first stage needs to promote anti-bullying training for the company’s senior managers. The second stage should involve training the rest of the employees. Training helps to increase awareness about bullying behaviors inside the company, informs employees about how to recognize bullying, and makes clear what the organizational costs are.
Nominate a professional contact. Make sure there is a professional, trained contact inside your company that employees can reach out to if they are bullied or if they see bullying.
Prepare a process. Create a detailed process for dealing with any bullying incident. Make sure it aligns with the consequences set out in the company policy.
Measure and track. Use tools or products that can help you to measure and track the company atmosphere and offensive behaviors. Don’t wait for employees to quit or for a lawsuit to materialize unexpectedly. By using the right tools to measure employees’ experiences, companies can detect offensive behaviors in the early stages, and deal with them.
The onus lies on employers to create a safe and healthy environment that promotes employee wellbeing and keeps morale high. May 4 is International Anti-Bullying Day. It’s a good time for executives and companies to reflect on what they can do in order to prevent this “silent epidemic.”
Chris Echevarria is a trend spotter, trained menswear designer, and cultural savant well-equipped to outfit a new generation of men.
“Whenever I acted out in school—and this goes back to when I was very little, like three or four—my mom would tell me, Chris, if you don’t behave, I’m going to take you shopping at Walmart. I would scream and cry: No, not Walmart!” Chris laughed a little telling that story.
This is a man who learned to read in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. As he said, shaking his head, “Fashion is a huge part of who I am, and my mother is pretty much the reason.” Chris has always known what he liked, and possessed a distinct level of taste. He’s a graduate of the prestigious menswear design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In some ways, his journey to founding Blackstock & Weber, a company that designs premium, handcrafted footwear for the modern man, looks like a straight line.
Except that Chris is a person of color, and percentage-wise, there are not a lot of entrepreneurs who look like him—especially in fashion and tech.
Techstars Founder Experience: Chris Echevarria, Founder of Blackstock and Weber - YouTube
“We Don’t Need a Bone, We Just Need Real Opportunity”
Chris is no stranger to the struggles of being a black male within corporate America. He sees a trend toward inclusion and diversity in tech right now, and he sees both good and bad in it. “The good is that people are aware of the lack of color in the room. The bad is that individuals on both sides of the fence perceive this as throwing people of color the proverbial ‘bone’.”
“We don’t need a ‘bone,’ we just need real opportunity.”
Chris has advice for both other aspiring entrepreneurs of color and for companies who want to be more inclusive. For the POC who dreams of starting their own company, his main advice is to keep showing up, and to own the fact that you’re unapologetically you.
As for how entrepreneurship and tech can be more inclusive, Chris’s solution requires digging deeper. “Foster the talent where the reserves haven’t been tapped,” Chris says. “If you keep looking in the same places, the faces and types of people you attract will naturally repeat themselves.”
A Lifelong Entrepreneur
Chris has been an entrepreneur, or at least had a side hustle going, all his life. In college, he and his roommate ran a substantial sneaker resale business in their dorm room prior to the existence of marketplaces like GOAT or StockX.
He can tell you the exact day he quit his day job: December 28, 2017. “I went full on doing this, and I haven’t looked back.” But still, that momentum doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had his doubts. “I always, in the back of my head, feared taking that leap. Can I do it on my own? Am I good enough? Entrepreneurship is hard, especially starting out as a solo founder.”
Yes, it is.
For Chris, Techstars was a huge help in making something hard just a bit easier. Before Techstars, he’d met many entrepreneurs, but met very few that exhibited the same level of passion he did for his fledgling idea. He went through the Techstars LA program in 2018, and for him, it was all about the people. “Techstars has a rigorous process of finding founders that are of a certain caliber. Everybody is very serious about what they’re doing and seeing their dreams through to completion. It’s great to have a network of people around you that are just as driven as you are.”
The Next Generation-Defining Menswear Brand
Blackstock and Weber has been selling beautiful, well designed, handmade shoes for a year and a half now, and Chris is excited to build on that success by growing into a full scale lifestyle brand. “We want to be the next generation-defining menswear brand,” Chris said. “This is how I envisioned the brand evolving from the beginning.”
What does that look like? To Chris, “A tee shirt and jeans can be just as classic as a tuxedo. It’s about creating the scene. Our ideology is rooted in and influenced by film. We want to give guys the tools to create their own scenes in their lives via staple pieces that every man needs in his wardrobe and an assortment of other curated goods from around the world.”
Chris isn’t one to dream small: “We want to put our spin on how men present themselves. We believe it’s deeper than just shoes and clothes. Our goal is to be a source of inspiration and a trusted voice. We need our place. We believe this is something men across the globe are searching for.”
Then again, if he did dream small, Chris never would have gotten this far. He’s a long way from sounding out the words in Vogue, and he’s been driven by his passion, tenacity, and discerning taste every step of the way.