Hiring Developer Evangelists

I define “web infrastructure” companies as those (at least initially) targeted primarily at developers. They typically take the form of APIs and make life easier on the web for developers. I’ve invested early in many such companies including SendGrid, Twilio, FullContact, Stream and RunScope.

Recently, one of our newer portfolio companies was looking for some advice from our network regarding hiring a developer evangelist.

Fortunately, our network around Techstars is huge and active. John Sheehan of RunScope (he was formerly at IFFFT & Twilio) quickly said:

“Unfortunately this is about the most in demand position out there. If you don’t have one yet, I would suggest picking the most active member of your dev community (that’s what I was for Twilio at the time). If you don’t have one of those, are you sure you need developer marketing yet?”

I thought this was terrific succinct advice so I wanted to share it. The thread went on:

“There is a large community around our open source project. Unfortunately nobody in the <our town> area stands out. “

To which John further replied:

“Why is local a requirement? I spent first 12 months at Twilio remote. You can do outreach locally already. Watch this and see which parts require a specific location.”

Then I watched that video, and it provides great insight on this topic. If you’re building something where you need to evangelize to developers, I hope John’s experience can be helpful to you as well.



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The Tricky Pool Shot

At Techstars, my partners and I have been using the term “tricky pool shot” quite a bit lately. We’re seeing more and more startups that have to accomplish something difficult as an ante in order to get to the point where they’ll have the opportunity to do the thing they really want to do. The other type of tricky pool shot we’re seeing is when startups are trying to time a potential new market and be there when it emerges. In effect, they are trying to stay alive long enough to be relevant and be in the right place at the right time. They have to knock down multiple difficult goals in the right order to win.

Obviously (as in the video below), tricky pool shots are crowd pleasers and pay off enormously when they work. But the fail all the time too and they’re very high risk.

As investors, we don’t mind risk. We’ll occasionally invest in a tricky pool shot. But we’re very skeptical of them because they’re extra difficult. As in billiards, it helps if the first part of the “shot” puts you in a very good position even if you miss the second or third shot, so at least you get to shoot again because it’s still your turn.

For example, imagine that you believe in the future driverless cars. You’d probably be thinking back to when we used to call cars “horseless carriages” and thinking that perhaps this would be more of a change that people might imagine today.  So you are building a company that imagines a world without the need for gasoline, and one in which the roads themselves will charge these futuristic cars. So you’re building infrastructure to enable these future cars to always be charging while driving, much like the trolly-bus system of San Francisco. This is a tricky pool shot indeed. Not only do we have to bet that most cars will be powered by electricity, but we also have to bet on when that will happen. And finally, you have to be on the mega-trend of autonomous vehicles as a driver for the change. You want to be there at just the right moment in time, and you’re starting right now. Investing in building out this expensive infrastructure before we know if any of those things are going to happen is quite a challenge. Perhaps there will be many electric vehicles but their range will be extended and there will be need to charge them so frequently. Perhaps solar will win. Perhaps we’ll all be flying around on drones instead of in cars at all. You only win if a certain tricky combination of possible futures come together. In this case, it’s several things to bet on with no great obvious intermediate states.

Of course, you might make the shot. And that would be rad.

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Goodbye Alex

Alex King recently passed away after a two year battle with cancer.

Alex was not one of my closest friends, but his passing hit me very hard. I was riding in a car from the airport yesterday when I got the news from his wife, and I just started crying.

I got to know Alex because he was a mentor in Boulder in the early years of Techstars. He totally leaned into mentoring startups and never for a moment asked what was in it for him. He was one of the few early technical mentors and he was in high demand. He loved his role as teacher. He was very, very good at it.

Alex changed the world in so many ways. He created the share icon that you see on most web sites today. He helped create WordPress very early on through his many open source contributions and today this software powers the internet. In fact it is the tool I am using to write this post today. You’re experiencing his work right now by reading this post.

Alex quite literally impacted millions of people with his work.

Work is important, of course. But when I started reading the outpouring of love from his friends and family over the last few years, I knew Alex had been truly successful in all phases of life.

In August of this year, I sent this note to wife Heather and I am happy that Alex probably had the chance to read it.

Hi Heather. I first met Alex around the time I started Techstars, in 2007. At that time, he had an amazing reputation as a software developer and I wanted to make sure we had strong mentors at Techstars who knew both business and tech. Alex jumped in with both feet without once asking what was in it for him. He was excited about the idea of helping startups succeed. The first time I met him I remember thinking “wow, this guy was a major part of creating wordpress, which powers an incredible percentage of the web sites that exist today. what a feeling it must be to have been involved in something like that so deeply, which had so much impact on so many people and companies. His work has literally touched billions.” As someone with an engineering background, I know that the true joy in our work is that others use the art (software) that we create. Today, Techstars uses WordPress to host our own site. Early on, I remember watching Alex present at local tech meetups and I had the impression that he didn’t think he was very good at it. But he was great. He held a rooms attention and came off as an authority without being at all arrogant. He is a great teacher. We then worked together on a few projects during the Crowd Favorite years and the work was always impeccable. Sadly, after a few years I had fewer occasions to work directly with Alex or to run into him. Denver is far from Boulder in so many ways. I do not know Alex super well. We are not best friends, more like business acquaintances. But when I think of Alex, I think of a family man who puts others first, is very giving, very respected,  and someone who has excelled at everything he has done in life. He has always been a person that I wholeheartedly recommend to others in any context. And he is someone I am glad I have had the opportunity to know, even if only at a high level.

Alex changed the world. He left his mark. He was humble, but he was noticed.

Thank you Alex. From all of us. Thank you.

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Giving up the ghost early

There is four times as much seed capital in the venture market this year as there was 1 year ago. Because of this, it’s easier to attract seed funding than it has been in the past.

I’ve noticed a disturbing new trend and I think it’s related. Startups are “quitting” when the first year doesn’t go as planned. The founders shut the business down, and either take a job or go out and start a new company with more of that plentiful seed funding. In some cases, they just exit with an acquihire and get themselves a nice compensation package without any material return of capital to their investors.

Startups are hard. Rarely does the first year or two go exactly as planned. The hockey stick doesn’t emerge quite like you thought it would. It takes persistence and determination in almost every case, if you hope to be successful.

The thing I worry about is that the Facebook movie and tons of seed funding have made it almost too attractive to get into entrepreneurship. Founders can live for a year or two on seed capital, have some fun, and punch their lottery ticket. If things don’t take off immediately, they can simply move on to something else.

I’m not saying this is the norm or even typical. Most founders are well intentioned and in it for the long haul, of course. This is just another of the myriad problems in figuring out what’s real given the oversupply of seed capital in the market today.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, think about it as a minimum of 5 years and likely 10+ years. That’s what it’s going to take to be successful. And that’s the commitment you should make before taking money from outside investors.


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Yesterday, I didn’t leave my house.

I was supposed to be in San Francisco for a board meeting but I was forced to cancel the trip suddenly. It left me with a rare day with only that one meeting (which I had to attend remotely) on my calendar. Otherwise, my calendar was wide open. I can’t remember that last time my calendar looked that way. I ended up doing that meeting online, and putting it on my big screen TV in my basement. It was really as good as being there. I caught every nuance because of the big display. It felt great. Obviously I missed the personal interaction with the management team, but that was really the only drawback.

I then realized that the entire rest of the day would have been spent traveling.  I would have missed bedtime stories with my son, but because I didn’t have the overhead I got to do that too. Sure, I probably would have gotten a ton of email done on the plane. Maybe a call on the way to the airport. But really, the travel was pure overhead. Leaving my house would have been overhead too. I didn’t go out to lunch either, I just ate a quick sandwich at home.

Because of the lack of overhead, it was easily the most productive day I can remember. It was pure maker time, except for that one meeting. I crushed my task lists and caught up on several very important projects. I did a couple of urgent calls (this happens daily – something is always urgent when you have a large portfolio of companies). I went to bed feeling energized and great about what I had accomplished.

My only regret was that I bothered to shower or put regular clothes on. That cost me a couple of minutes. But my wife was OK it, especially the shower. And I’m pretty sure the other board members appreciated not having to witness my pajamas.

I highly recommend you have one day in your life with zero overhead. Doing this will help you think about which of the overhead items you want to add back in and which you want to try to reduce or eliminate. You may be amazed by what you find. I sure was, and it’s leading to a few changes.


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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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