Brad Feld’s recent post on mentors really hit home with me. My first mentor was my dad. He died nearly ten years ago, but he still influences me every single day. My father was a CPA and entrepreneur, living in DeLand, Florida, where I grew up. To this day, his partners at Cohen, Smith, and Company still honor him by keeping his name, his values, and his memory alive. He showed me that hard work, dedication, passion, and respect for others are central traits for good people, and for good entrepreneurs. My dad always said thank you to those who worked with him in simple but thoughtful ways. It was obvious that he really meant it. He gave lots of people a chance that others may not have. When he made friends, he made friends for life.
Early on, my dad taught me the value of hard work and dedication. I remember wanting a bike when I was about twelve years old (you know, a shiny blue schwinn). My dad insisted that I pay for half of it, then proceeded to pay me way too much for cleaning out the garage or filing some papers for him. It took forever to earn that bike, but man did it feel good when I did. By the time I was in high school and then college, I was used to working to help pay my way, even though by then my dad could have made sure I had an easier, free ride.
I wish my dad could have seen the things I accomplished after he died. I wish he could teach this stuff to my kids. I know that he would be helping me today on my new projects. I guess in a way he still is.
My next mentor was Major Robert W. Reed. I had the good fortune of working at a DoD contractor while I was in college, and was assigned to work inside the now defunct Depart of Defense Training and Performance Data Center (TPDC). Major Reed (I would never call him Robert, much less Bob) was the first “crazy smart computer guy” I ever met, and spent half of his time actually writing software in Pascal. He was what I have become – a really good prototyper and architecture guy, but not the guy you want writing all the detailed code. The architecture analogy is that we designed the bridges, made sure they worked and would not fall down, and left the harder work of building the bridge to those who were good at that. Major Reed taught me how to think about problems, and how to apply computers to help solve them. We wrote code to analyze the military training manuals, and figure out where the redundancy (and thus possible cost savings) were. We also designed an internal messaging system that was ugly as hell but had all the features of modern mail and phone systems. Major Reed was always talking about the lack of standards, and how Internet communication standards would soon change the world. I remember thinking, yeah, it will be cool when you can just send an email to anyone.
Every time I went back to Orlando (I went to school there) I would go and have lunch with Major Reed. He was always eager to learn what my company was doing, what progress it had made, and to hand me some gem of advice about the crisis of the month. Sadly, Major Reed also died a few years ago. He’d be really interested in what I’m doing these days.
David Brown has been my other mentor. We founded our public safety company, ZOLL Data Systems, together in 1993. We were the definition of peers, and I think we reached what Brad called “co-mentoring” status pretty quickly. We were both pretty amazed by what we could learn from each other and how we could push each other to always do better without it every once coming off as negative. David taught me about listening to your customer, setting smart goals, and relentlessly driving towards them (the goals, not the customers). And, bonus, David is still alive. 😉
Right now I’m developing a relationship with my next mentor (I hope). I’m in the 100% “taking” phase of the relationship. This is the part where you feel like you could never possibly have a single thing to teach this person, and wonder why he hasn’t swatted you away like an annoying fly yet. You feel like the dumbest guy in the room all the time. But man, do you want to be in that room.
I’m not sure I’m a mentor to anyone right now, but I have been in the past (mostly to aspiring developers or managers who had never written a line of code but I could see they had the natural talent as clearly as if if they had it tattooed on their foreheads). One of the things I really love about my current “job” is that I get to listen to passionate, energetic and talented people paint their visions. I’ve been a mini-mentor to many of these people. A few have even developed relationships with me and keep coming back for my advice as they build their dreams. It’s really fun and interesting to look at something with fresh eyes, and without the biases, assumptions, and situations that the entrepreneur is knee deep in every day.
It’s mind boggling to think that one day I might have seen or experienced enough “startup stuff” to eventually have the kind of impact on young entrepreneurs that my father, Major Reed, or David Brown has had on me in my life.