A better professional network

Techstars is an amazing network of over 3,000 entrepreneurs, mentors and investors. Being part of the network is a lifelong benefit for the companies we fund. One of the most important (but often undervalued) assets a startup needs to create is a strong and supportive network around itself.

For me personally, making connections among people that can help each other is a big part of what I do. I want to put the right people together at the right times so that all of the companies I’m involved in can do incredible things.

Professional networks like LinkedIn don’t help me do this. They’re inaccurate because they don’t understand the difference between someone I met briefly at a cocktail party and someone I’ve worked with for 10 years. And they force me to manually send and accept connection requests in order to keep up with changes to my network. At the end of the day, they don’t actually understand my network or anyone else’s.

What I want a professional network to do is help me navigate my network and find the best ways to connect people. Conspire, a company we’re investors, does this well. Based on email communication patterns, it understands the strength of relationship between me and each of my contacts, along with the strengths of millions of other relationships. The result is a professional network that finds the strongest path of connections between me and any person or company.

When I need to reach out to someone, Conspire finds the best person in my personal network to make an introduction. But, more importantly, it helps my extended network know when I can help them with an introduction, or when someone else in their network is in a better position. Always knowing who to ask for help is powerful.

Conspire’s network has grown to reach more than 37 million people already. Historically, it has only been available to Gmail users. But today they are opening up access to anyone with an email account that supports the common IMAP protocol, so it now works with Outlook, Exchange, etc as well.  I’m excited to see the network grow and become an even better resource for me and everyone else.


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150M new reasons to be thankful at Techstars

Today, we launched our third venture fund at Techstars, now called Techstars Ventures. It’s $150M of fresh capital focused on Seed and Series A and we’re now managing $265M in total. You can read the basics of the announcement on the Techstars blog.

In the life of any business, there are moments. Moments that matter. The same has been true for Techstars, of course.

There was the moment Techstars was born, after I had a “random day” meeting with Brad Feld. Meeting him changed my life and career in profound ways, inspired me to be a better person and investor, and helped me achieve more happiness and balance in my life. Brad taught me the once mysterious ways of “giving first” that have become so ingrained in the Techstars culture today. After that random day meeting, Brad became a co-founder of Techstars along with me, Jared Polis, and David Brown.

Another moment was meeting Jason Mendelson, one of Brad’s partners at Foundry Group. I think it was a 15 minute meeting that turned into a few hours over beer. Jason became a close friend and has been hugely instrumental to the success of Techstars in innumerable ways. It’s truly humbling to stop and think about all of the things that Jason has done for me personally and for Techstars as an organization. My biggest regret is that he is not recognized enough for all he has done. I consider him a co-founder of Techstars, even if that’s not how the way back machine will necessarily tell the story. Techstars would be a shadow of what it is today, if it still existed at all, without Jason Mendelson. Ryan McIntyre and Seth Levine and really everyone at Foundry Group have been at times irrationally supportive of Techstars over the years and I cannot possibly thank them all enough. This latest fund would not exist without this tremendous support from Foundry Group, their generous introductions, and their belief that what we are doing at Techstars is important work.

These first moments in the Techstars story led to the launch of Techstars in 2007, an important moment to be sure. Soon after came the moments of meeting Nicole Glaros who would later run the Boulder Techstars program and who now works with me on this new fund. She is probably the single most important actor in the success of Techstars, although she likely today still has no clue that this is how we all feel. That is just Nicole – she’s the biggest team player I know and a humble inspiration to us all. And there was the moment I met Molly Nasky, our CFO. Both Nicole and Molly have worked tirelessly for completely unreasonable amounts of time and took enormous personal and professional risks to build Techstars from the ground up. Molly is and has always been the pulse of Techstars and I am constantly astonished at what she is able to pull off. Molly was really the first person I ever considered a partner at Techstars, long before this was ever formalized.

In 2009, there were two more moments that mattered. That was the moment when we created the first venture fund. Back then we called it Bullet Time Ventures (I was a big fan of the Matrix and that’s the only hint I’m giving you), which later evolved into Techstars Ventures. The first Limited Partners who invested in that first fund took a tremendous risk on me and on Techstars. I’m thankful that risk has been rewarded and that that opportunity has scaled to allow us to bring Techstars to the world. Another moment that year was when we started to scale Techstars by expanding it to Boston. For that I am most thankful to Bill Warner. Without Bill, Techstars would have never figured out our scalable growth model which allowed us to grow while keeping our focus on quality instead of quantity. Bill understood that Techstars was something different. Something necessary for the Boston community. I will never forget our dinners and his will to help us figure out how Techstars could impact more people. Bill helped me figure out the difference between the invention of Techstars and the intention of Techstars.

There were so many other moments early on. Andy Sack who forever became part of the very soul of Techstars. Jon Bradford who expanded our horizons internationally. Katie Rae and her incredible passion for startups in Boston. David Tisch and his tough love and push in NYC. Jason Seats and his incredible instincts as an investor. Ari Newman taking multiple career risking chances on Techstars. Walt Winshall and his endless wisdom. The list goes on forever.

A few years ago as I was contemplating the growth and potential of Techstars, Mark Solon and I were trying to figure out how to be partners. We knew we wanted to, but we hadn’t figured out exactly how it would work. We were struggling, not with the partnership but with how to define it. Then there was a moment neither of us will ever forgot. Mark’s wife, Pam, told Mark to just “get on the train”. Pam realized that the Techstars train was moving 1,000 MPH and wasn’t going to slow down to figure out exactly what seat Mark should sit in or exactly how much the ticket might cost, or frankly even where the destination might be. In that moment it was Pam’s encouragement for Mark to take that leap of faith, to work out the details later, to just jump on the train and start helping to keep it on the tracks, that triggered an amazing partnership between us that led to our ability to raise this capital and to make Techstars stronger overall.

Like Pam has for Mark, my wife has also supported me in incredible ways during a tough year of fundraising which required extra travel and additional stress. Nothing has changed me for he better like the moment I married her.

There are so many Managing Directors, Directors, Program Managers and staff at Techstars who helped us survive the growing pains so far. So many mentors and investors who have impacted so many others. So many great partners. So many great founders. I know that they are rarely looking back with pride because they are laser focused on today and the future ahead. But I urge them all to take just a moment and to reflect on their impact on so many entrepreneurs and on the very way that startups are now created around the world.

One of the biggest moments of all was recruiting my 20+ year business partner, David Brown, back to Techstars full time. While Mark and I raised this fund over the last year, David has absolutely transformed Techstars from the inside. Our culture is humming, we are a focused organization, we handle conflict much more effectively, and we communicate better. His impact has been astonishing and transformative.

Then there was that moment when our lead LP in our newest fund had the nerve to say “I’m in” with a huge check early on. That moment changed everything for this new $150M fund and gave us credibility and a head start in a crowded market. We had a secret weapon who helped us with investor relations. I could tell you who he is but he would have to kill you and me both if I did. The moment he came on board made all the difference.

There are hopefully many more moments ahead for Techstars and I know there are many I have not recounted here. Thanks to everyone who has been involved. Techstars is a community.

You know, they say building a business is about the people. When I think of the moments that matter – the moments that changed Techstars – I think of when and how I intersected with these people. It is, truly, the people. And I will never forget this as an investor.

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A Smarter Internet-of-Things

I love the concept of a smart home and have a number of monitoring devices. I have Nest for temperature control, Dropcam to keep a close eye on my front door and WeMo for my lights and outlets. But there is one thing I have noticed, they all feel like silos. These products have different apps, independent push notifications, and they all serve separate purposes. I receive so many irrelevant push notifications that I am beginning to wonder when I will miss a notification I actually care about. I won’t deny that they are cool gadgets, but they could be better.

The IoT industry has an opportunity to make products that are actually smart. There are too many notifications and devices don’t learn fast, if at all, leaving a fragmented ecosystem of products, apps, and notifications. Few devices have settings to filter notifications or set rules, and many just send alerts about everything. UX needs improvement!

Real intelligence is missing from my world of “smart things.” Notion, currently in Techstars, has a unique approach – to give me information about my home that I actually care about and only when it’s important. Notion focuses on home intelligence and just launched a Kickstarter campaign and already has $200,000 in orders as I’m writing this. The Notion team has created a multi-function sensor about the size of an Oreo that can detect light, acceleration, sound, natural frequency, orientation, temperature, water leaks, and proximity. Notion can tell you the simple things a home security system can detect, like if a door opens, a window breaks, or an alarm goes off, but it can also tell you if the temperature of a baby’s room is too hot or cold, if a pipe breaks in your basement, if a teenager is getting into your liquor cabinet or if your propane tank is low.

This is cool functionality to be sure, but what I am most excited about is that it actually learns about me over time as I accept and decline alerts. I’ll be able to set my own custom rules in the app too. I don’t need to know every single time my front door opens because it’s usually my family or anticipated visitors. I’m also looking forward to calendar, weather and other useful integrations to customize the UX for my life. All of these improvements are made possible by their single sensor and innovative data technologies.

I love home automation, but what I need are intelligent devices that are more than just gadgets. As the smart home market continues to evolve, the appetite for products that truly make you smarter about your home and your life will continue to grow and become more useful. I’m excited to watch Notion progress and can’t wait to get the sensors I ordered via Kickstarter.

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How To Not Be Heard

For years I’ve worked very closely with two individuals who get extremely excitable, to the point of anger and frustration, when they’re expressing their point of view. These two people happen to be among the smartest people I’ve ever met. However, they often deliver their feedback accompanied by something very off-putting such as the following gem:

“Someone with a brain will eventually figure this out!”

This is what they really said to me! It was immediately followed by some very insightful and important feedback. But it’s feedback most people would never be able to hear.

If you were on the receiving end of this feedback, it would be pretty hard not to feel insulted. The implication that you don’t have a brain would probably distract you from any advice or insights that followed.

Fortunately, I have what I consider a rare and useful skill in my line of work–the ability to cut through the emotion and still listen to the content of the message. However, most people aren’t built that way. They’re going to get hung up on the fact that you’re insulting or berating them and how that makes them feel. As a result they will never give any consideration to your actual message, no matter how amazing your insights may be.

I once heard a great phrase, which I’ve since successfully passed along to these two individuals:

“The fury with which you speak undermines the veracity of your statements.”

So this is how to not be heard: Scream. Hurl insults. Unleash your fury.

If you do want to be heard: Stop. Think. Breathe. Set aside the emotion in your tone.

When I work with startups and give them feedback, I always try to remain even keel and tone the down emotional content. Sometimes I’m really pissed off, and sometimes I’m really excited, but I strive to make sure my message is heard and not my emotion. If you’re the kind of person who likes to scream and deliver a lot of hellfire with your feedback, recognize that many people will never hear your feedback. If you’re the rare example of someone like this who also has amazing, important insights to offer, realize that you’re undermining yourself. Your ideas will almost never be heard.

If you want to be heard, you have to learn to rein it in. If you’re prone to getting excited and emotional, remember: Don’t let the fury with which you speak undermine the veracity of your statements. Tone down the emotion when you’re providing feedback, so that your brilliant insights can be heard.

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Open Angel Forum #10 in Boulder

It’s time to take a quick look back at companies that have presented at Open Angel Forum here in Boulder so far. There have been 9 events. Companies that participated have gone on to raise well over $100M and have over 400 employees. Pretty awesome. The full list of companies that participated in the past is at the bottom of this post.

Now it’s your turn! Open Angel Forum #10 in Boulder is on October 28 at 5pm. If you’d like to present there, please apply. If accepted, you get to come have dinner with the most active angel investors in our community an in informal no-BS setting. Open Angel Forum is always a great fit for companies that already have some early commitments to their rounds, and t amplifies this nicely to other active investors in the community. If you’re an active angel that wants to attend, please apply here.

As always, there is no cost to present or attend as an angel. Even dinner is covered. Here’s what past participants have to say about Open Angel Forum.

“I’ve done many pitches in a variety of settings. OAF is by far the most personal I’ve experienced. We were able to pitch and to chat. People often say “it’s business, it’s not personal”..I don’t buy that. When it comes to early stage investing, it’s also personal. Investors want to know the people behind companies and entrepreneurs want to understand that team behind investments. It’s relationship and OAF does a great job bring together both sides who are already living in the same community.“ – Dave Cass, CEO/Co-Founder of Uvize

“OAF was a great launch point for us at Given Goods. It’s an incredible way to get exposure to sophisticated angel investors within your community. We found that in Boulder if you invest in getting to know the people in the community, the community will invest in your success personally and as a company. This proved true from OAF to Boulder Beta to Techstars.” – Alex, Founder at Conspire

“The entire OAF experience was great. I met some other local entrepreneurs who I’m still in touch with, and we picked up two new investors who have intro’d us around town. It was a great hand-picked crowd who were more engaged than most pitch events. Would highly recommend to early stage entrepreneurs” – Will Sacks, Co-Founder and CEO at Kindara

“The main differentiator for OAF was the fact that there were active and qualified angels there. Regardless of whether a company benefits monetarily from the event, the interaction with this group has a dynamic that was very challenging and positive.” – Sherisse Hawkins, CEO/Co-Founder at BeneathTheInk

“OAF is a great opportunity to present in front of a small group of engaged and insightful investors. It’s an incredibly high value event for entrepreneurs.” – Alex, Founder at Conspire

A huge shout out is due to Fletcher Richman who does all the hard work around Open Angel Forum. Thank you Fletcher, you’re making a huge difference in our startup community.

Here’s all the past participants who have now raised > $100M and have 400+ employees in our community. I hope see you at the event on October 28!

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No Vision, All Drive

It was pretty fun to sit on stage recently with Techstars co-founder David Brown to tell our story in front of the newest class of Techstars founders in Boulder. Since it was our first time on stage together talking about how we built and sold our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, we put together a few short videos from the talk that highlight our entrepreneurial adventures.

Together we’ve had successes and failures over the last 25 years, and we’ve laughed a ton along the way. Here’s the quick story: in 1993, we founded our first company, Pinpoint Technologies, which grew from a basement startup to a successful multinational company with $50 million in annual sales and over 250 employees. Later we founded a company together called iContact, which failed (you may have heard of the one that was successful – we sold them the domain name after we failed). And finally, we founded Techstars together and it seems to be doing OK.

David recounts our experiences together, from founding Pinpoint to coming back as Managing Partner at Techstars just one year ago, in the updated and re-released version of his book, No Vision All Drive.

These short videos give you a glimpse into David’s book, which exemplifies what it was like for two young entrepreneurs who knew nothing about building a business to grow their startup into a real company with a successful exit.

The reason we started Techstars together was based on our experiences together. We sold Pinpoint Technologies for half as much as we later learned that the acquirer was willing to pay. Since then I’ve seen 48 Techstars companies exit. I’ve seen that pattern play itself back, and in some cases we’ve been able to double exit values for our founders. Sure wish we had that help when we sold our first company successfully!

Check out the videos and if you like what you see, grab a copy of No Vision All Drive, just released this week.

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