Founders first and other things I have learned during 3 years at Techstars

Three years ago I embarked on what, so far, has turned out to be the best job of my career.

I am not just saying it, this is actually true—running the Techstars New York City program and working at Techstars has been the best, most humbling job I’ve ever had.

Here is what I have learned in the last 3 years.

1. Founders First

I am now an investor in 55 startups, and that thought really blows my mind.

But here is the thing—I don’t think of these investments as investments in companies, I think of them as investments in people.

To me, at Techstars, we don’t invest in startups, we invest in founders.

I’ve taken this approach since my first program back in 2014—invest in the best founders you can find. Invest in smart, fearless, resilient founders and get behind them unconditionally.

I am convinced that this 110% commitment, this almost-blind belief in the founders, is what matters the most. Through the inevitable ups and downs of every startup, what founders can really feel and really lean on is your belief in them.

Prioritizing founders and their interests and their needs can’t be faked. You can’t just say you do it. You have to actually do it. And it is a ton and a ton and a ton of work.

Founders know and feel you are for real and they respond back with raw authenticity, openness, and commitment back to you.

Fundraising, founder issues, business introductions, hiring, financial modeling, and just plain simple things like listening and sharing lunches and dinners and responding to phone calls on weekends and evenings all take enormous amounts of time.

But it is worth it—every single second given to the founders is worth it.

The relationships that I’ve built with my founders, the commitment that I’ve made to them has changed me in ways that are impossible to describe.

It feels right, it feels so great to be helpful. It just feels like the right thing to do that made me a much better investor, but way more importantly, a better human being.

2. Mentor and be Mentored

Mentorship is at the core of Techstars, and I’ve experienced its transformative power myself.

As a mentor to my founders, my core strengths are empathy, complete openness, lack of agenda, and intellectual honesty.

Startups are unbelievably hard. The struggle is real. The first job of a mentor is to relate to and empathize with the founder. But it is not just empathy, it is also intellectual honesty and ability to tell them the truth, as you see it, to point them to the data, to make them sober, to help find the right path, is what’s been really important.

Yet being a mentor is not the only amazing thing I have been able to experience at Techstars. Perhaps most unexpectedly and in a very transformative way, I’ve been mentored myself.

Truthfully, I’ve never had great mentors in my career. My closest experience with good mentorship was with my former boss, Paul Kotas, whom I worked with at D.E. Shaw.

But something very different happened to me at Techstars. I have learned a TON from everyone in the organization. Mark Solon and Nicole Glaros have been incredibly generous and patient with me, and I have learned a lot from them.

But the most extraordinary generosity and mentorship came from David Cohen himself. David has made himself available and responsive in ways I could never expect when I took the job. He has patiently, meticulously, and deliberately committed to mentoring me and answering any questions I’ve had (and I’ve had and still have many!).

David Cohen truly led by example, and gave first, and taught me so many things that I know today. He made it inevitable for me to pass the same to people and founders I work with.

3. Network is the magic

I’ve spent more than a decade of my life studying networks and complex systems.

My first company, that was bought by IBM, applied graph theory to software architecture. I’ve studied networks in economics, politics, biology, physics, and society. My second company was a social network for entertainment.

So I know a ton about the networks, and how they work. But that knowledge is very different from being INSIDE of one of the most powerful business networks in the world.

At Techstars, the network—founders, alumni, mentors, corporate partners, Techstars staff—is the magic. Period.

Our ability to accelerate the companies, and shortcut the universe through this incredible network is unlike anything else out there. By leveraging the network we are able to go 10x, 100x, 1000x faster than people who don’t have the network.

In the last three years at Techstars, I’ve made a deliberate and conscious effort to invest in this network, my personal network, and to build it out. I believe I am literally light years ahead of those who don’t have this kind of network, and have created an unfair advantage for myself for the rest of my business career.

4. How to be thankful

I am so incredibly thankful for this opportunity. I am so glad Brad Feld gave me a call a little over three years ago, and asked that I would consider this job.

I am so incredibly thankful for my crew at Techstars—KJ and Jill just have been the A-team to help pull off this mission impossible. People at Techstars I work with, our mentors in NYC, our community, our LPs/investors have been incredibly supportive.

But saying you are thankful is not really enough. Being thankful is very different from saying you are thankful.

Being thankful is about pausing and acknowledging others around you. Being mindful of them, being attuned to their needs, spending a few seconds of your life thinking about them.

Everyone can say they are thankful, but are they really?

Being thankful by being mindful and acting on it, leaning in, offering help and being present—that’s what I learned is really powerful.

5. Trust your gut

Life is fundamentally unpredictable.

Startups and ventures are so unbelievably hard. Companies that seem to be successful run out of money and fail. Founders who struggle figure things out and create great businesses.

No one can predict what is going to happen. No one knows for sure what will make money.

Of course, every investor and every firm has their own thesis as to what will work and what will not. I learned first-hand the importance of founder market fit, viable MVPs, and resilience.

But ultimately, no matter how you slice this, there is no formula for the perfect startup.

You can come up with a million reasons why not. You can find a hole in every single early- stage company.

Ultimately, you have to trust your gut, and your gut is tied to your belief in these specific founders. Do you believe in them? Can they pull off the impossible, and if they do, will it be worthwhile for everyone around the table?

Ultimately, your gut comes full circle and goes back to this one very simple thing—founders first.

Startup Advice

6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. thanks alex for the kind words. i have learned so much from you. that’s the beauty of the best kind of mentorship, the kind that goes both ways. we are lucky to have you on the team.

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  2. This is a fantastic post, Alex. I think the distinction around thankfulness as posture vs. behavior is especially important — even in the midst of the chaos of running a rapidly growing company, there is room for helping others, exhibiting gratitude, /!: spending time on others…but only if we make that time a priority.

    Thank you for doing just that for so many of us.

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